The cluster of buildings was so overgrown, one might almost have missed them.
From the air they would've been all but invisible, hidden beneath the canopies of trees that hadn't been there when this place was built. Even at ground level, a searcher of anything less than the highest caliber might have walked right past the edge of the complex, never realizing it was there. If the security camera on the easternmost building had been working, its optic would have registered nothing for the past eight decades but the slow encroachment of the vegetation on the border of what had been a neatly manicured clearing in the forest, the occasional passing of a bird, or the even more occasional furtive darting of a small ground animal. There were larger animals about, but for all that time, they had scrupulously avoided coming anywhere near this area.
So if the camera had been working, and some intelligence had been monitoring it, that intelligence might have felt a measure of surprise as, around the midpoint of another unexceptional day, a fairly large lifeform chopped its way out of the thickest jungle and into the relative openness of the former clearing. An animal, most probably a mammal: an erect biped standing roughly 5.5 feet tall and gracile; largely hairless, but with an unusually bright red coloration of its upper body with off-white below, likely for recognition signaling rather than camouflage. Its left forelimb ended in a long, shiny claw, which it had just used to chop down the vegetation barring its path. Clearly, then, a lifeform to be reckoned with, despite its relatively slight build.
That assessment would, of course, have been wrong in many of its particulars; but exactly correct in the most important one.
Order: Primates | Family: Hominidae | Genus: Homo
"Phew!" declared the young woman in the red shirt. Sheathing her machete with a triumphant twirl, she tipped back her battered pith helmet to wipe the sweat from her forehead with the back of her arm. "I'm glad we're finally through the worst of that underbrush."
Order: Carnivora | Family: Felidae | Genus: Leptailurus
"You said it," declared a second figure, picking fragments of leaves from her tawny-gold hair as she struggled out of the bush behind her. "I am not a jungle cat."
"Sorry, Serval," said the human with a gently rueful smile. "Seems like I'm always dragging you into environments you're not built for."
"Aw, it's OK, Kaban," Serval replied, catching her around the neck in a hug. "If there's one thing I've learned from traveling with you, it's that I'm a lot more adaptable than I ever thought I could be." Grinning, she released her companion—it was too hot and sticky out here for prolonged hugging, however much she usually enjoyed that sort of thing—and went on, "Guess some of the human is rubbing off on me."
Kaban chuckled and decided not to point out that, being a Friend, Serval was largely human in the first place. Let her have her rhetorical flourish. Anyway, Kaban knew what she meant, and it pleased her.
"So!" Serval continued, looking around with hands on hips. "Is this the place? Did we find it?"
Kaban got out the old photo and assessed what she could see of the buildings through the overgrowth of creeper vines and younger trees, then nodded.
"This is it," she said, a hush of something like awe coming into her voice. "We've finally found Park Administration."
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
© 2019 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"Woo hoo!" Serval cried, jumping for joy. "Who's got two thumbs and is half of the greatest explorer team ever to hit Japari Park? This cat right here!" Then, turning to Kaban, she asked, "Where do we start?"
Serval's always-infectious enthusiasm banished Kaban's sense of awe; smiling, she consulted the photograph again, then pointed. "That big building in the center is the main one. The Park Director's office was there, along with the Chief Ranger's. But," she added before Serval could dash off to start exploring the building, "I think we should probably start with that one there."
Serval looked, then frowned. Unlike the central building, which was a tall structure of white concrete that must have been sleek and modern once, the one Kaban was pointing to now was a low cinderblock box, lacking even windows.
"... Not gonna lie, that one doesn't look anywhere near as interesting," she said.
"I know, but according to this, it was the Facilities Control building," Kaban told her. "There might be something there we can use. Besides, it's smaller, so it stands to reason we should check it out first."
"If you say so!" Serval agreed, her disappointment already erased.
The two crossed the overgrown plaza to the Facilities building, picking their way over roots and vines. As they went, they caught occasional glimpses of the old paving stones that had once defined a network of paths between the buildings. These had been white, and inlaid with a pattern that, after Kaban had seen enough pieces of it, resolved into the familiar Japari Park emblem that appeared everywhere on the park's signage and literature. Now they were mostly gone, broken up by decades of exposure to the elements and the slow, relentless work of the plants.
They arrived at the door to the Facilities building and found it intact, a deeply weathered but still-solid-looking metal barrier. Serval bent down to peer at an object affixed to the door, a sort of hinged metal bar with a small block of greenish brass hanging from it on a loop of peeling chrome.
"What's this thing?" she wondered, batting at it. The metal squeaked and rattled as the hanging object, rusted in place for decades, swung on its loop.
Kaban considered it for a moment, taking in the way the metal bar it was hung on was attached to the door and the frame surrounding it. "Hmmm... oh! I think it's some kind of lock," she mused after a moment's reflection. "Look, see?" She rattled the door by its knob. "You can't open the door with it hanging there. There must be some way to unfasten it and take it off that metal loop." She turned, surveying the area. "Maybe there's something around I can pry it with..."
"I got this," Serval declared, and then, flexing her fingers with a sparkle of Sandstar energy, she called forth her claws and struck at the lock with a sharp cry of, "Mya!"
She had to hit it three times, but on the third blow, the corroded metal gave way and the lock dropped to the ground, freeing the door to swing slowly, noisily open on its rusty hinges.
"... Or that," Kaban said agreeably. Stepping up to the doorway, she peered beyond it, but saw nothing but blackness inside. "Pretty dark in there," she observed, a note of trepidation creeping into her voice.
Before she could go on, or Serval could reply, something inside the darkened building moved with an audible shuffling sound, then popped abruptly into the doorway, nearly colliding with Kaban. She recoiled involuntarily, jumping back two feet with a reflexive cry of,
"Please don't eat me!"
Serval, too, had adopted a defensive posture, but she recognized the shape before Kaban did and relaxed, laughing.
"Greatest explorer in the Park, still afraid of the dark," she chided Kaban cheerfully. "Look, it's just a Boss."
"Hello," said the small blue creature standing in the doorway in a familiar metallic voice. "I am Lucky Beast. I am sorry, but this area is off-limits to visitors."
Kaban recovered her poise, slightly red-faced at having lost it in the first place, and crouched down to be closer to eye level with the guide robot. "I'm not a visitor, I live here," she said. "My name is Kaban. I'm a Park Ranger from the Kyōshū Region."
"Checking. Checking," said the Lucky Beast, its eyes flickering rainbow colors. "Records downloaded from Kyōshū Region personnel system. Kaban, no last name..." It paused for several seconds, then said, "Error. Records mismatch. Reconciling... Mismatch reconciled. Kaban, no last name, Japari Park Chief Ranger."
Serval blinked, her eyes going wide, but she had the presence of mind not to object, and Kaban remained silent as the Lucky Beast continued, "Full Access authorization confirmed. My apologies, Chief Kaban. Welcome to the Administration Special Area." The robot turned its optics to Serval, regarded her silently for a moment, then turned back to Kaban with an inquisitive tilt of its body and asked, "This Friend appears to be native to the Kyōshū Region Savannah Area. Would you like me to summon a colleague to guide her back to her proper Area?"
Serval folded her arms. "Like to see you try it," she muttered indignantly, but Kaban shot her an amused glance and then told the Lucky Beast,
"No, she's with me."
"I see," the robot replied. "I must remind you that Park guidelines strongly discourage removing Friends from their natural habitats; it can be bad for their health and places them under unnecessary psychological stress. However, it is your call."
"Serval is special," Kaban explained. Serval beamed, giving the robot an emphatic, slightly smug nod, and the two girls could have sworn that, if Lucky Beasts had been physically equipped to shrug, this one would have.
"Very well," it said. "What brings you to the ASA today?"
"We're here about the Park's food supply system," said Kaban.
"Professor? Mimi? Are you here?" Kaban called from the entrance to the Library's central hall.
Silently, the white and brown figures of the two owls appeared from among the branches of the great tree and descended, alighting before their two visitors and furling their wings with mirror-image precision.
Order: Strigiformes | Family: Strigidae | Genus: Ptilopsis
"Of course we are here," said the white owl, better known to the Kyōshū Region's Friends as the Professor.
Order: Strigiformes | Family: Strigidae | Genus: Bubo
"Indeed, we are always here," agreed her Assistant, Mimi to her friends.
Kaban let this blatant falsehood pass, as she usually did when the Professor and Mimi were on their dignity (which was always), and asked instead, "What's up? We got your message."
"It sounded super urgent," said Serval, nodding.
"Ah. You brought Serval," the Professor observed unenthusiastically.
"She always brings Serval," Mimi pointed out.
"That is true," conceded the Professor.
"Even though she is rarely useful," Mimi added.
"Even though," the Professor agreed.
"Rude!" Serval declared, folding her arms.
Sighing inwardly, Kaban did her best to steer the conversation back on track. "Uh, the message?"
"Yes. The message," said the Professor, recalling herself to the task at hand. "We have received troubling news."
"Very troubling," Mimi put in.
"So troubling that a Lucky Beast communicated it to us directly, since their network was unable to locate you," the Professor told Kaban.
"Oh wow," Serval breathed.
With the exception of Kaban's own personal guide, Lucky, who would deign to do so if she asked him to, Lucky Beasts virtually never spoke to Friends directly. It was the most ironclad of the relatively few rules remaining in Japari Park.
"We wish you would keep Lucky with you when you go into the field," Mimi told Kaban, her flat owl affect becoming ever-so-slightly severe. "Without him, you are often annoyingly difficult to find."
"Silver Fox and Ezo Red Fox needed his help repairing the hot spring source," Kaban explained. "Since I was only going to the Savannah Area, I didn't see any harm in lending him to them."
"Fine," said the Professor. "We will not argue the point. Our business today is too urgent to waste time on such matters."
"It is most urgent," Mimi agreed. "My apologies."
The Professor delved into a pocket of her feathery overcoat and produced a small, round object wrapped in paper, which she held up for Kaban and Serval to consider.
"... A Japari Bun?" Serval said, puzzled. "OK?"
"A Japari Bun," the Professor confirmed. "Staple food source of the Park."
"Optimized for the complete nutritional needs of all Friends," Mimi added.
The Professor nodded. "The constant supply of Japari Buns provided by the Lucky Beasts frees every resident of the Park from the need to find and procure any other sustenance."
"Uh, yeah, I know that," Serval said, a little testily. "Despite what you two think, I'm not completely stupid."
"We have never considered you completely stupid," said Mimi, and before Serval could react to the utterly bemusing backhandedness of the remark, the Professor plowed on,
"The Lucky Beasts informed us three days ago that the automated system by which they produce Japari Buns will soon fail."
Mimi nodded gravely. "They have maintained it since the humans abandoned the Park, but it is now wearing out beyond their capacity to repair it."
"In three months," said the Professor, "the supply of Japari Buns will begin to run short."
"Within half a year," Mimi went on, "it will cease altogether."
Kaban's eyes went wide with dismay; before the owls spoke again, she knew what they were going to say next, and Serval's hand seizing her own told her silently that her companion did as well.
Staring straight into Kaban's blue eyes with her unnervingly immobile golden ones, the Professor intoned, "If that happens, a darker time will fall on Japari Park than it has ever known before. Even the Cerulean War—no. Even the Abandonment will pale in comparison."
Mimi took up the thread. "The predators among the Friends will face a terrible choice: return to their old ways, or starve."
"Indeed, even we."
"Friend will turn against Friend."
"Many will die."
"And the peaceful dream of the Park will die with them."
"We cannot allow this," the two owls said in unison.
"For we are the chiefs of this village," said the Professor.
"And we are wise," Mimi added.
The Professor closed her eyes, as if her next remark caused her physical pain to utter, and said, "But, in this instance... not wise enough." Then, opening them again, she fixed them on Kaban's once more and told her, "You must find a way to prevent this, Kaban."
"We believe you are the only Friend who can," Mimi agreed.
Kaban blinked in a combination of astonishment and dismay. "I... of course I'll do whatever I can, but... I don't even know where to start."
"We have thought of that," the Professor said.
"For we are wise," Mimi put in. She removed a piece of paper from within her coat and handed it to Kaban.
"That is a recorded image from the Ancient Time," the Professor told her.
"A 'pho-to-graph'," Mimi elaborated.
"It depicts the holiest place in Japari Park, after the Great Sandstar Mountain," said the Professor.
Her voice hushed, as if she feared the syllables she was about to speak might rouse an angry god, Mimi said, "The Forbidden City of Admin-Istra."
"It lies somewhere in the An'in Region. It was the seat of the humans' power in the Ancient Time, before the Abandonment," explained the Professor. "The abode of the High Chief Ranger and the all-powerful Park Director."
"If there is any answer to be found to our current crisis," Mimi said, "it must be there."
"Ordinarily, we would permit no Friend even to seek Admin-Istra," said the Professor, "much less enter it."
"Even what little we know about its location is proscribed knowledge," Mimi agreed.
"But now you must seek it. You must find it. And you must learn its terrible secrets," the Professor declared. Opening her wings, she lifted off and began to rise back up toward the heights of the great tree, with Mimi no more than a second behind her. "The future of the Park depends on it."
"We believe in you," said Mimi.
While Kaban was still searching for something, anything, to say, the two owls alighted on an upper branch. In the shadows of the foliage, only their eyes—shining bright, gazing unblinkingly down at Kaban and Serval—could still be seen from ground level.
"Go now," said the Professor flatly. "We have spoken."
"We have spoken," Mimi agreed, and then their eyes, too, disappeared.
Several seconds stretched before the two visitors, still standing hand-in-hand in silent shock.
"Wow," said Serval at last. "No pressure."
It took Kaban and Serval three days, with the aid of the local Lucky Beast, to clear enough rubble and debris from the Facilities building to conduct a proper search for equipment, records, or anything else that might give them a lead on a way to repair or replace the food supply. To Serval's intense frustration, all this effort yielded nothing useful. The building, it seemed, had done no more than coordinate the efforts of the individual region's power and water systems, most of which were operating independently in various contingency modes by this point anyway. It had no connection to the food supply at all.
Undaunted, at least outwardly, Kaban turned her attention to the central administration building on the fourth day. This was, at least, a more congenial environment in which to search; it was also wrecked and littered with debris, but it had been a nicer building to start with, and its ruins had a certain grandeur that the strictly utilitarian Facilities building lacked.
By the time they had worked their way up from the ground floor to the top, Serval could feel the disappointment that had washed over her in the Facilities building growing again. This place was all just offices, with dead TV screens and meaningless papers scattered around. She felt increasingly certain there wasn't going to be anything useful here either.
In an effort to keep her spirits up, she seized on a strange detail she'd been noticing and said to Kaban, "Why do you suppose everyone who worked here had a TV in their office? I mean, you've seen Ezo Red Fox using the one at the hot springs. How did they get any work done?"
Kaban shook her head. "I don't know, it's weird," she agreed. "I almost think they must have been for something else, but I can't imagine what."
The closest thing to a thrill Serval got that day was when they breached the big, important-looking office in the corner of the top floor. The door had once had metal letters attached to it, most of which were now scattered on the floor in front of it, but their outlines in the dust still spelled out Park Director. Surely such a magnificent, godlike figure must have held the greatest and most vital secrets of the park's operations in his inner sanctum...
... But no. No, all that was in here, besides the remnants of some fine carpet and the collapsed remains of a very large chair and desk (and yet another defunct TV), were a few crumbling books on zoology and business management. No mysterious artifacts. No documents revealing some contingency measure no one had thought of yet. No answers.
"OK. There's one more room on this floor," Kaban said practically. "Let's see what's in it."
If Serval had been able to make out what was written on the director's office door, the legend on the door to the last room escaped her completely. She was literate, one of the relatively few Friends who were. She could read the words marked on the door. She just had no idea what in the world they said.
"'Interstellar Communications'," she sounded out, scratching her head. "What the heck does that mean?" She turned to Kaban, intending to ask if she had any idea, but the look of astonished realization on her human friend's face told her in an instant that she did—and that it was the last thing she'd expected to find here.
"It..." Kaban paused, as if searching for words, then said, "I'll explain later. We have to stay focused on what we're doing. This..." Opening the door, she stepped into the room beyond with Serval right behind her.
The room was windowless and pitch-black, but that was no problem for Serval. The low light cast by Kaban's little battery lantern was more than enough for her to make out the long, table-like desks, the rows of dark, cracked TV screens. Another worthless dead end.
Kaban's sigh confirmed that conclusion a moment later. "It's nothing we need right now," she said. "I'll need to come back and investigate later, but first we have to make sure there is a 'later', and this place can't help us with that."
"So... now what do we do?" Serval asked, her voice trembling, as they went back out into the hall.
Kaban considered the view from the window at the end of the corridor, late-afternoon light slanting through the glass, then said decisively, "Let's see if we can get to the roof."
The stairs up to the roof were barred with another of those hanging locks, but it fared no better against Serval's claws than had the one on the Facilities building. Within a few minutes, the two were standing by the handrail at the edge of the admin building's roof. The view from up here, above the forest canopy, was amazing, and under normal circumstances they both would have marveled at it. Today, though, they stood in pensive silence, watching the shadows lengthen across the undulant vegetation, for a long while.
"Hmm," said Kaban, and Serval felt a thrill race up her spine. If she'd still had fur at the base of her neck, it would've stood up.
She knew that "hmm". It was the "hmm" that said Kaban had spotted something—something that aroused her curiosity, something that got her agile mind turning. So many times in her life, Serval had heard that sound moments before Kaban said or did something that turned the entire situation onto a whole new course.
"What?" she asked.
Kaban pointed. "You can see the coast from here. Look—there's a city."
Serval peered into the distance and saw it at once: the biggest cluster of buildings she'd ever seen in her life. In the region of her birth, there were never more than three or four buildings together at a time; in her native Savannah Area, there were virtually no buildings at all, and you never encountered more than one. Over there, she could make out dozens of them—maybe hundreds.
"Amazing," she said. "I've seen pictures of the old human cities in the Library, but I never knew there was anything like that anywhere in the Park."
"That is Renraku City," the local Lucky Beast declared, causing Serval—who had long since forgotten it was still accompanying them—to jump with a sharp yowl of surprise.
As if she hadn't reacted, the robot went on, "Named for one of the principals of the Japari Consortium, it is the largest settlement in the Park, and home to most of the permanent staff, apart from the Rangers and Guides posted to the other Regions. It also contains the Park's logistical seaport, primary medical center, and research laboratories."
Kaban gazed thoughtfully at the distant skyline for a few moments, then said slowly, "Would... that include a food lab?"
"Yes," the Lucky Beast confirmed. "The famous Japari Bun was developed at the Advanced Care and Nutrition Laboratory in Renraku City. Special park guests holding an Investor's Backstage Access Pass can tour the production pilot plant every day between 9 AM and 6 PM."
Kaban met Serval's eyes, a little glint of triumph in her own. You see? that glint asked silently. We're not licked yet.
"I want to take that tour," she said aloud. "Can you please take us to the lab tomorrow?"
"Of course," Lucky Beast replied at once. "When would you like to depart?"
"First light, if it's not too much trouble," Kaban said.
"No trouble at all, Chief Kaban," the robot assured her. "I will prepare a Japari Bus tonight. We will depart from the central courtyard in the morning. In the meantime, please wait warmly."
So saying, it turned and hopped away, heading for the stairs. In its wake, Kaban and Serval stood looking at each other for a few seconds, then lunged together in a jubilant, jumping hug.
"Nice of Boss to mention that four days ago," Serval said wryly when they'd finished.
"I sometimes forget that ordinary Lucky Beasts aren't as good at making associations as our Lucky," Kaban said ruefully. "Speaking of which, I should get the local one to send him a message before we leave tomorrow. Under the circumstances, I'm sure he'll be willing to pass an update on to the Professor."
Serval nodded. "Good idea. She must be getting worried by now."
The weather was fine, balmy with a bit of a breeze, so they pitched camp for the night right where they were, on the Admin Building roof. Conversation was minimal as they ate their carefully rationed supper, splitting a Japari Bun between them, each preoccupied with her own thoughts. By the time they'd finished with that, tidied up, and unrolled their bedroll, night had fully fallen. Above them, the clear sky was splashed and speckled with thousands of stars.
Lying on her back looking up at them, Serval abruptly said, "You were going to tell me what that last room was for."
Kaban, engrossed in writing up the day's notes in her battered leather explorer's journal by the light of her tiny battery lantern, looked up. "Hm? Oh, the Interstellar Communications room?"
Serval nodded, hitching herself up on an elbow to make eye contact; in the dark, her feline eyes caught the light of Kaban's lamp and glittered back at her. "'Interstellar' means 'between stars' right? So what does that even mean? How can dots in the sky talk to each other?"
Kaban looked puzzled, then nodded. "That's right," she said softly, almost to herself. "You'd never have had any reason to know."
Serval tilted her head. "Know what?"
"Of course I know the stars," said Serval, faintly indignant. "Before I met you I was nocturnal, after all. I used to see them every night."
Kaban shook her head. "No, that's not what I mean. You've never learned what they are. The stars... well. You know the sun, right?" Serval nodded, clearly wondering where this was heading. Kaban paused for a moment, searching her memory for words from one of the ancient books she'd read in the Library, then said, "The sun is a star. And the stars are other suns. So far away that they're just these tiny points of light in the sky," she said, gesturing vaguely overhead.
Serval plopped down on her back, looking straight up at the stars for a while; then she sat fully up to meet Kaban's eyes again, her own wide and full of wonder.
"That's amazing!" she cried.
"Isn't it?" Kaban agreed, smiling broadly.
"So the stuff in that room..."
"Was used to talk to people on the planets of other suns, out there somewhere," Kaban confirmed, gesturing to the sky again.
Serval looked up again. "Wooooow. I wonder if anybody's still out there. What am I saying, look how many there are! There's gotta be somebody out there, right?"
"I think so," Kaban agreed. "I hope so. When this is all over, I want to come back here and investigate that room more closely. Maybe... maybe that's why I've never been able to find another human. Maybe they left the whole planet, not just the Park."
"Maybe the Park is the whole planet," Serval speculated.
"Maybe. That would explain a few things," said Kaban. "Anyway, it's not important right now."
"No, but after... Kaban, that's really exciting! I wonder if there are Friends on other planets, too." She yawned, stretching luxuriantly, then lay down and curled into her usual sleeping position (face-down, with her knees drawn up and her head pillowed on her folded arms). "Maybe we'll find out sometime..." she murmured, then began snoring very softly.
Kaban chuckled fondly and bent back to work on her journal.
Park Admin exploration, day 4. We searched the entire Administration Building today and found nothing of value for our present needs... but something really interesting. The Admin building has a room marked "Interstellar Communications". As expected, none of the equipment works, but the fact that it's even there is exciting. It means my theory about what this place once was is probably correct. But something happened while we were exploring it that gave me pause.
When I told Serval-chan what the room we were in had once been, she didn't understand. Although she's a nocturnal hunter and knows the stars well, she's never known what they are. She was there when I read that particular old book in the Professor's library, but she wasn't paying attention. I taught her to read ages ago, but books aren't for her. They're too dry, too static. She'd rather I read them and then tell her the good parts—which is fine!—but what was in that one never came up before.
So I explained: the stars are other suns, so far away they look like those tiny points of light from here, and the machines in that room used to let people here talk to other people on their planets. The wonder in her eyes when I told her that... like the whole universe had suddenly gotten so much bigger in her mind. I'll never get tired of that.
I love her so much.
And now I'm worried. If there are other humans still out there, and we can make contact with them, will she want to go with me to meet them? Because without her... I don't think it would be worth going.
But, first things first. We have to solve the food problem before I can do anything else. Luckily, we have a new lead on that. From the roof of this building, we saw a city down on the coast, and the local Lucky Beast says the laboratory where they created the Japari Bun is there, along with something called a "pilot plant". It's our best lead so far, and we're going to go over and check it out tomorrow.
If we find what we need there, and we can use it to fix the food problem, I'll come back here and look more closely at Interstellar Communications. None of the equipment works any more, but there might be something left that will give me a clue.
In the meantime, I have more important work to do, and I'd better get some rest.
Kaban closed her notebook, put out the lamp, and tucked both items away in her backpack, then took off her boots, stood them next to the pack, lay down on the bedroll beside Serval, and tipped her pith helmet forward over her eyes. As she did most nights, Serval snuggled up to her side, placing one leg over hers, reached across her body, and took her far hand, lacing their fingers together.
"Raaar," she murmured happily, not really awake. "Got you."
"Please don't eat me," Kaban whispered, smiling.
"Wasn't gonna," Serval mumbled, and then went fully back to sleep.
The next morning, Lucky Beast had the bus ready bright and early, as promised. At first light, Kaban and Serval broke camp and left the Administration Special Area behind, heading for Renraku City.
What should have been no more than an hour's drive took them all morning, thanks to the condition of the long-neglected road, but Kaban and Serval were used to that by now. They had a well-practiced routine all worked out for helping the Lucky Beasts, who weren't well-suited to manual labor, navigate the dilapidated byways of Japari Park.
At mid-morning, with the bus bumping along a relatively clear stretch, Serval was standing in the topside cupola when she suddenly remarked,
"Hey, Kaban. Have you noticed how quiet it is?"
Kaban climbed up beside her, settling her elbows on the roof of the bus, and replied, "My hearing isn't as sharp as yours... but yes, I had. It's strange."
Serval nodded. "This jungle should be alive with noise at this time of day. There ought to be plenty of birds, if nothing else... but apart from us, it's like nothing's moving out here. It's been that way since we crossed that river about an hour back. And we haven't seen a single Friend the whole time we've been out here, either."
"That's true," Kaban said, sounding as if she'd just realized it. "The ASA is forbidden territory, but we're far enough from the perimeter now that we should've run across at least one or two. Now that I think about it, I'm surprised there weren't any at the river."
For the rest of the trip, though there was nothing obviously wrong, both travelers felt vaguely uneasy; but nothing happened, and they entered the remains of Renraku City without incident.
As the Japari Bus plodded through the potholed, rubble-strewn streets, Serval and Kaban stood in the cupola, looking around them in wonder. In their time together, they'd been to many far corners of the Park and seen many wonders, but neither of them had ever seen anything like this place except in pictures. The view of it from the roof of the Admin building had given them some idea what to expect, but seeing up close—being right down among the tall white buildings—was something else again.
Apart from quiet exclamations of amazement, the two took in the sights in silence. As the first surge of wonder ebbed, Kaban felt it being replaced with a strange sense of melancholy. It was similar to the feeling of loneliness and... loss? Something like that, anyway... she'd felt while exploring the Admin building, except on a grand scale. After a few blocks, the emptiness of the place started getting to her.
She wondered if it could be some metagenetic echo of her, her humanness. She'd always wanted to meet another human, ever since she learned she was one, but it had gradually become apparent that she was the only one in the Park, possibly the only one in the world... and now here she was in a place where untold thousands of them had once lived, worked, and played. And they were all gone. Every last one of them.
"Kaban?" Serval asked, her voice full of concern. "Why are you crying?"
Kaban blinked, her hand rising to her face. She hadn't been aware that she was, but yes, those were definitely tears running down her cheeks.
"I-I don't know," she stammered, wiping at her face with the hem of her shirt. "I just... I feel like I've lost something I loved, even though I don't know what it was."
Serval gave a knowing nod. "Ahh," she said, and gathered Kaban up in a tight hug. "I know that feeling. I don't understand it either, but I've felt it before."
Kaban held on for a few minutes, feeling her equilibrium returning, then separated with a grateful smile. Neither said anything else—there was no need—but they were still standing hand-in-hand when the bus came to a halt.
"Are we there?" Serval asked, bounding down from the cupola ladder.
"The streets beyond this point are impassable by bus," Lucky Beast said. (Serval took a moment to enjoy the momentary illusion that the robot was speaking to her, though she knew it was really reporting to Kaban as she came up alongside.) "We will have to proceed on foot. Shall we go?"
Kaban nodded. "Lead the way."
"Very well. Mind the gap," the robot admonished as the bus's side door swung open.
Kaban and Serval followed Lucky Beast through the deserted streets in silence for a couple of blocks. As they picked their way through the rubble littering a crossing, Kaban noticed that Serval seemed edgy—her eyes darting around, black-tipped animal ears twitching here and there.
"What is it, Serval?" she asked quietly.
"Somebody's following us," Serval murmured. "Whoever it is, they're almost silent, but I'd swear we're being stalked."
Kaban blinked. "Can you tell where they are?"
"No. They're good," Serval admitted. "Really good. But if they get any closer, I'll spot them. Don't worry."
"OK," said Kaban with a nod. "I'll leave it to you."
They saw nothing, and though Kaban listened hard, her human ears picked up no sign of whatever Serval could hear; all she heard was the scrape of their shoes on the pavement, the soft mechanical sounds of the Lucky Beast's waddling gait, and her own heartbeat in her ears.
"This place just goes on forever," Serval remarked, to break the tension if nothing else. After all, she reasoned, they weren't worried about being stealthy.
"Mm," Kaban agreed as the two followed Lucky Beast around another corner. "Lucky Beast? Do you know how many people this city held before it was abandoned?"
The voice that answered the question wasn't Lucky Beast's. Low, a little raspy, and touched with an accent Kaban couldn't place, it belonged to the person who stepped suddenly out of an alley a few paces ahead of them.
"Fifty thousand people used to live here," she told them.
Kaban pulled up short. "Wow," she said under her breath.
"I told you she was good," Serval muttered.
The figure before them had, like them, the general form of a young woman, in this case a fairly short and somewhat stocky, tough-looking one. She had unkempt medium-brown hair cut short, with a pair of small, round animal ears set up high; these were furred in the same color on the back, but pink on the inside, and quite mobile. A long, tapering, naked tail flicked fitfully behind her. Black lines reminiscent of whiskers flanked her rather prominent pointed nose, which looked like it had been broken at some point and not set properly. Her eyes looked black too, at first glance, but a closer look revealed them to be a very deep red, which caught highlights as her gaze swept warily around.
The really remarkable thing about this Friend's appearance, though, was what she was wearing. It looked like some kind of military uniform, not dressy but like battlefield fatigues, all in essentially the same shade of brown as her hair, except for chunky combat boots and heavy gloves in a sort of rawhide yellow. She also had on a beret, which Kaban had missed at first glance because it, too, was the same color as her hair.
When she spoke again, Kaban and Serval saw that she had pronounced front teeth, reminding them both a bit of their friend American Beaver, but narrower.
"Now it's a ghost town," she declared, gesturing generally to the ruins around them.
Order: Rodentia | Family: Muridae | Genus: Rattus
"The name's Brown Rat," the brown-clad Friend went on. "Norway to my friends. I don't know if you two qualify yet. Who are you and what's your business in my little empire of ashes?"
"Um... my name is Kaban," said Kaban. "I'm a Ranger from the Kyōshū Region."
Brown Rat snorted. "There haven't been any Rangers in Japari Park since long before any of us was born. Pull the other one."
"It's true!" Serval objected, her dander raised by the other's tone.
Brown Rat looked her over with obvious distaste. "Great. A cat of some kind. My day is complete."
"I'm Serval, the... well, serval. I come from the Savannah Area in Kyōshū. I'd say it's nice to meet you," she added sarcastically, "except you're kinda doing your best to make it not."
Brown Rat regarded her with a raised-eyebrow deadpan for a second, then laughed. "Touché, pussycat," she said. "Sorry. I get edgy when company comes, especially when they don't call first. Which they never do, because nothing in this town works. The hell is a serval, by the way? You look like a cheetah to me."
"We're like cheetahs—kind of—but smaller and better at jumping," Serval explained.
"Ah. OK." Brown Rat took a few steps toward them, then leaned and sniffed at Kaban a few times, her whisker markings—were they tattoos? Serval wondered—wrinkling. "Never smelled anything like you before. No ears, no tail, no claws, no teeth worth writing home about... the heck kinda animal are you?"
"I'm human," Kaban told her.
Brown Rat raised both eyebrows at that. "Wot," she said.
"That's how she's a Ranger," Serval pointed out. "Only humans can be Rangers."
"Are you havin' me on? Human? After all this time? How many of you have come back?"
Kaban shook her head. "I'm not from outside. I was born in the Savannah from a Sandstar eruption. I'm a Friend. I just... happen to be a Friend whose animal side is also human."
"... That's confusing," Brown Rat declared.
"Tell me about it," Kaban replied.
Brown Rat stared at her for a second, and then they both broke up laughing.
"Awright, fair enough," said Brown Rat. "At least you're the only one. You had me thinking, Aw cripes, there goes the neighborhood for a second there. So. Back to my original question. Actually I guess it was technically my second question, but anyway. What are you doing here, of all places? Nobody comes here."
"We need to get to the Park's old Nutrition Lab," Kaban said.
"Do you know it?" asked Serval.
Brown Rat laughed. "'Course I do. Building full of food, you don't think a rat's gonna know exactly where that is? Follow me." As they set off, she added back over her shoulder, "Only it's locked up tighter than a tick's arsehole, you know. I've spent half my life trying to get into that place and been thwarted every time. If it's not the Bosses chasing me off, it's the doors I can't chew through."
"I'm hoping my Ranger access can get me inside," Kaban explained. "I need to find out if there's anything in there that I can use to repair the Park's food supply."
Brown Rat eyed her narrowly. "Why? Is something wrong with it?"
As Lucky Beast and Brown Rat led her and Serval deeper into the ruins of Renraku City, Kaban mulled over what was bothering her about the place. It was more than just the peculiar melancholy that had settled over her at its emptiness. Something was wrong here, something not as it should be. And it wasn't just that the city was abandoned. She'd been expecting that.
She had plenty of time to think it over, since after being told the full story of why they were there, Brown Rat didn't have much to say. She seemed dumbstruck by the idea that the Park even could just run out of food. Even she, an expert in urban survival used to fending for herself, ate Japari Buns. Had come to take them for granted. After all, they were always around. Baskets of fresh ones just appeared, often without her even spotting the Boss who dropped them off. The idea that, one day soon, if nothing were done, they would just stop coming left her deeply unsettled.
In an effort to lift her new acquaintance's spirits, and maybe make up for the bad foot they'd started out on, Serval attempted a little bit of friendly conversation at one point, asking,
"Do you live all alone in these ruins, Brown Rat?"
"Almost," Brown Rat replied. "Couple of the snake girls from across the river venture into the tunnels under the streets sometimes, but they don't hang around. And we get the odd bird Friend stopping by to rest on the way from somewhere else to somewhere else. Only the hardiest ones. This place has a bad reputation."
"Can't imagine why," Serval mumbled.
"The only other permanent resident here is my cousin Black Rat, but we probably won't see her. She keeps to herself—stays up in the high floors of the taller buildings, mostly. I think she's nuts, most of these buildings aren't exactly what you'd call stable, but..." She shrugged. "Roof rat gonna roof."
Kaban listened to their conversation with half an ear, pleased that they seemed to be getting on better, but mostly preoccupied with her own thoughts.
She didn't put her finger on what was bothering her until they rounded a corner and their destination came in sight. Upon first spotting the Japari Park Advanced Care and Nutrition Laboratory, Kaban suspected she and Serval would have been able to spot it even without guidance, once they were in this part of the city. It was the only building that was intact. More than intact, it looked almost pristine. Its once-white concrete was a bit grimy, but the low, bunker-like structure still had sharp corners and smooth walls, where the buildings all around it were partly collapsed, or burned out, or sheared off above the second or third floor like broken teeth...
"That's it," Kaban said suddenly.
"Huh?" Serval asked, turning a puzzled look to her friend.
"You say something, Ranger?" asked Brown Rat.
"I've been feeling like something's out of place about this city since we got here," Kaban said, as much to think it out aloud as to explain it to the others. "It's not just that it's empty, I knew that. And looking at this," she went on, gesturing to the mostly-ruined block ahead of them, "I've realized what it is. There's too much damage."
"Lot can happen in however many umpteen years," Brown Rat said, but Kaban shook her head earnestly.
"No. I've seen too many other abandoned structures in the Park, I know this isn't normal. Things left alone for years may crumble, or rot, or eventually fall down, but look at this place. Look at all the rubble in the streets, look at what's happened to these buildings." Serval and Brown Rat did as she asked, the one nodding with dawning agreement, the other narrowing her eyes skeptically.
"This city wasn't just abandoned," Kaban insisted. "It's been destroyed."
"Ehh," said Brown Rat, waving a dismissive hand. "You sound like the girls who live over the river that-a-way. They say something lives in the sea hereabouts. Something very big and very bad. It's why Friends don't come around here, by land or by sea." She shrugged. "Personally, I think it's a bunch of hooey. I've lived here for years and never seen any 'sea monster'." Shaking her head, she concluded, "You ask me, the humans did this on their way out."
"Maybe," said Kaban, but she sounded unconvinced. "I admit I don't really know what humans are like, even though I'm one myself. I'm the only one I've ever seen. But I know I wouldn't ruin a place just because I was leaving it. I'd try to leave it in as good a shape as I could, as a favor to whoever came along after me." Looking around, she hefted her backpack unnecessarily, in what Serval instantly recognized as an unconscious gesture of unease, and said, "All the same, I think we should do what we came here to do and get out as fast as we can. I don't like this place at all."
Brown Rat looked faintly offended, but let it drop. Instead, she nodded toward the Nutrition Lab and said, "Well, at least the lab itself is in good shape. The Ancients built this place to last, it must have been important to them."
"I hope we'll be able to get in," Serval said.
Lucky Beast, which had kept its own counsel this entire time, halted in front of the lab's massive metal front door and reported, "The Advanced Care and Nutrition Laboratory is a secure facility. I will require your explicit authorization to admit you and the Friends in your care, Chief Kaban."
"In your care? Excuse me?" Brown Rat muttered under her breath, but Serval shushed her with a wave as Kaban crouched before the robot.
"Uh... you have my authorization as Chief Ranger to admit me, Serval, and Brown Rat to the Nutrition Lab, Lucky Beast," she said.
"Authorization logged. Please wait a moment while I open the doors. In the future, they will open automatically for you."
Facing the building, the little robot emitted a stream of odd electronic noises, its eyes doing that rainbow flicker thing again. A moment after it finished, the door made a loud metallic clunk, parted in the center, and slid open to either side.
"Please enter. I will begin the tour," said Lucky Beast. "It will take approximately two hours."
"Can't we just skip to the part where you find out if what you need is in here?" Brown Rat asked, but Serval shook her head with a knowing smile.
"Ohhh no," she said. "Boss does things at his own pace, and it doesn't do any good to try and rush him. Kaban and I learned that lesson a loooong time ago."
"If you say so," Brown Rat replied, shaking her head. "You two are weird."
"You have no idea," Kaban said, a trifle absently, as most of her attention was taken up with assessing their surroundings.
On the inside, the Nutrition Lab was even more unusually pristine than the outside. Not just by the standards of Renraku City's ruins, but measured against any place Kaban had seen before.
Some of the facilities back home in the Kyōshū Region were in good shape, maintained and repaired by the Lucky Beasts or the Friends who had taken them over. The Japari Café on Mount Vicuña, for instance, which Alpaca Suri lovingly maintained, or the Forest Lodge, which Campo Flicker looked after with a proper innkeeper's pride. Others, like the Library, had been damaged by the elements beyond the Friends' ability to repair, but their remains were curated with meticulous care by their occupants.
Nothing there was perfect, though; it all showed the marks of time and wear, although in the case of the Japari Café and the Lodge, Kaban was sure their proprietors would prefer she called it "patina". But this place... this place looked, and felt, and even smelled brand new. Not merely as if it had been looked after, but as if it were too new to need looking after. If it weren't for the fact that it was completely deserted, it would have seemed like a fully operational facility in a park that was very much a going concern.
As Lucky Beast had promised, the tour took the better part of two hours, and by halfway through it, Kaban was privately amused to notice that both Serval and Brown Rat were visibly chafing with impatience. She wasn't feeling any too patient herself, come to that; she was simply better at coping with it. She would have had to admit, if pressed, that she wasn't any too interested in the details of the research laboratories or the qualifications of the long-gone staff who had once worked there.
"Which brings us to the capstone of the tour: the second-generation Japari Bun Production Unit," said Lucky Beast, halting in front of a double door at the end of a long hallway. "This beyond-cutting-edge equipment will completely rewrite the book on food preparation technology, with implications reaching far beyond the confines of Japari Park. It is scheduled to replace the existing Mark One food production system soon, after which the Japari Consortium will begin promoting and licensing the technology galaxy-wide. This is truly an exciting time."
Kaban had to restrain herself from giggling at the inherent goofiness of the high-flown marketing-speak being uttered by Lucky Beast's monotone mechanical voice. Brown Rat was looking so edgy by this point that she suspected she'd have caused a small explosion of temper if she showed any levity at this moment.
Instead, she said earnestly, "I can't wait to see it," and Lucky Beast took the cue and opened the doors.
The room beyond was clean and white, like all the others they'd seen on the tour, but rather larger than most. Apart from a couple of workstations with swivel chairs, it was dominated by a single large piece of equipment, its function not immediately obvious, which stood in the middle of the room atop a sort of rostrum made of clear glass. The bottom part of it, standing at waist height on top of the glass pedestal, looked a bit like the little electric oven Alpaca Suri used to heat up the snacks she sold along with her famous tea at the Japari Café (which, according to the label on the front, used something called "micro-waves").
On top of that, surrounded by a tangle of wires, metal brackets, and unidentifiable electronic-looking widgets sealed inside a big glass box, was a cubical crystal perhaps twice the size of a person's head, illuminated from within by an ever-shifting rainbow light.
Serval gasped. "Is... is that Sandstar?"
"Can't be. There isn't a single piece of it that big anywhere outside the Great Mountain," Brown Rat said.
"The Mark Two represents a revolutionary new application of the power of the mysterious substance we call 'Sandstar'," said Lucky Beast as if they hadn't spoken. "By leveraging Sandstar's strange power along with the most advanced matter manipulation technologies available, it can generate consumables literally from thin air. It is genuine magic, in the Clarkeian sense of the word."
"What does that mean?" Brown Rat wondered.
"No idea. Doesn't matter," Serval said. "Did you hear what he said? It makes food out of nothing!"
"When final testing is completed later this year, this single machine will replace the much larger and more complicated production system now in place," Lucky Beast went on. "By itself, it will supply the nutritional needs of the entire Park." It paused then, presumably programmed to leave time for its audience to express wonderment, then continued, "The system's flexibility is such that it can produce a wide range of custom-tailored Japari Buns, each optimized for the needs and tastes of a subset, or even a specific species of Friend. This allows for a much greater range of offerings than the Mark One's primitive customization system enabled. Would you like a sample?"
"Heck yeah I would!" Serval declared, but of course the robot ignored her, so Kaban replied,
"Oh, uh... sure! That would be great. How about something a serval would like?"
"Please leave it to me," said Lucky Beast, and it turned and "spoke" to the machine the same way it had to the door.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then the machine made no more dramatic a sound as a faint hum for a couple of seconds, followed by a bright ding! (exactly like the sound Alpaca Suri's micro-wave made, Kaban was inwardly amused to notice). The door on the front of the machine popped open, and there in the cavity within was a miniature Japari Bun, perhaps a quarter of the usual size, iced in green and gently steaming.
"Bon appétit," Lucky Beast deadpanned, then added matter-of-factly, "Disclaimer: This food item may not be suitable for human consumption."
Serval took the mini-bun out of the machine, sniffed at it curiously, and then, to Kaban and Brown Rat's surprise, nearly swooned, wobbling visibly on her feet.
"Oh wow," she said, "that smells amaaaazing," and then she gobbled it down as though starving, scattering crumbs.
"Dang, Ranger," Brown Rat observed. "Do you not feed that girl or what?"
"Of course I do," Kaban replied, slightly indignant.
When she'd finished eating the sample, Serval stood silent for a few moments, still facing away from her companions, not moving except to wobble in place a little more.
"Serval?" Kaban said, taking a step toward her. "Are... are you OK?"
Serval turned very slowly around, moving as if underwater, and looked back at Kaban for a moment with glazed eyes that were not quite matching sizes...
... and then sprang forward and hugged her with all four limbs, arms around her neck, long legs locked around her waist, crying joyfully, "Kaaaaaban-chan!"
"Serval-chan?!" Kaban blurted, staggering back. Serval wasn't very heavy, but the move was so unexpected, Kaban nearly fell over backward before she could get her feet properly repositioned to hold them both up.
Off to the side, she could see Brown Rat staring pop-eyed, uncertain whether to be horrified, hysterically amused, or what, as Serval started rubbing her cheek against Kaban's and purring loudly.
"loveyousomuch," she mumbled, almost unintelligible, since still purring while speaking.
"I—well, that's good but—what the?!"
"love, love, looove," Serval replied, punctuating each repetition with a raspy lick to the side of Kaban's neck (and making her wince and giggle each time, in spite of her mounting concern).
"Serval, what's gotten into you?!" Kaban pleaded.
"Well, by the looks of it, play your cards right..." Brown Rat muttered, but she stopped when Kaban shot her a moment's you're not helping! glare mixed with an incandescent blush.
"The sample I provided was formulation 72-549, recreational supplement for felids," Lucky Beast explained. "Its active ingredient is a concentrated extract of Actinida polygama, also known as matatabi or silver vine. This elicits feelings of euphoria and intensely amplified affection in feline users."
"Now she's biting me. Or... sort of chewing. And drooling on me," Kaban said uncomfortably.
"lvvvymmm," Serval declared around an increasingly sodden mouthful of Kaban's shirt and shoulder.
"Also, biting and drooling," Lucky Beast confirmed.
"I don't suppose they've got something like that for murids," Brown Rat wondered aloud, then shook her head. "Nah, on second thought, forget it. Need to stay focused."
"The peak of the effect should pass in approximately ten minutes," Lucky Beast added. "These preparations are guaranteed to be safe and non-habit-forming, making them the perfect treats for your most special Friends."
"O... K, that's kind of creepy when you put it that way," Brown Rat said.
"Mm," Kaban agreed helplessly.
Twenty minutes later, while Serval sat on the floor off to one side and hid her face in abject embarrassment, Kaban (dressed above the waist only in her black undershirt, while the red one hung over a chair to dry) and Brown Rat examined the food machine.
"I need to take this back to the Kyōshū Region somehow," Kaban explained as she circled the machine, considering the way it was mounted to the glass pedestal. "According to the Professor, that's where the distribution center for the whole Park is. We can't reprogram the Lucky Beasts to come here for their quotas of Japari Buns, we have to move the machine to where they're expecting to find them."
"Any idea where?" Brown Rat wondered. "Kyōshū's a big place."
"I've never been there myself, but I have some friends who've seen it," Kaban said. "One of them should be able to show me the way, if I can just get it over to the island. Lucky Beast? Do you know of a way we can transport this to Kyōshū?"
"There is no need for you to concern yourself with that, Chief Kaban. When final testing is concluded and the Mark Two system is ready for its formal rollout, the Park Facilities staff will relocate it."
"There's been a change of plan," Kaban said. "Facilities isn't available. We'll have to do it ourselves. That's why Serval and I are here."
"Checking. Checking. Error. Facilities Management Department not responding. Adopting Chief Ranger contingency plan." Returning from its internal reverie, the Lucky Beast faced Kaban and told her, "I will prepare the Mark Two's safe-transport case and shut the unit down for transfer. The dismantling and stowage process will take approximately one-half hour."
"Good. Thank you," said Kaban. Picking up her shirt—still a bit damp, but livable—she crossed the room and crouched down by Serval, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Serval? Are you feeling OK now?"
"I am so. Sorry. I did that," Serval replied, face still in hands.
"Why? I was surprised, but once I got over the shock, I thought it was really sweet. Except for the part where you chewed on me," Kaban qualified.
Serval laughed in spite of herself, then turned slowly around to face her, still red-faced. "Yeah, uh... sorry. I dunno what—I just lost it. All I could think of was—well, anyway. It felt kind of like a wild release, except, uh... kissy instead of fighty."
"I'd rather have you kissy than fighty," Kaban assured her.
Another slightly-reluctant laugh. "Yeah, but in front of strangers?"
"Don't worry about it. Brown Rat's a little gruff, but she's a friend," Kaban said, drawing Serval into a (somewhat less assertive) hug. "It's fine, it's fine."
"Did I hurt your shoulder?" asked Serval in a small voice.
Kaban rubbed her back and reassured her, "Only a little. I'll be OK."
"Do you think we can get the machine out of here?"
"I think so. Lucky Beast is getting it ready now."
"I hope the three of us can move it," Serval said, sitting back and starting to look a little less flustered. "I mean, we at least have to be able to get it back to the bus by hand."
"Hmm," Kaban agreed, nodding. Then, turning and raising her voice, she asked, "Lucky Beast? How much will the machine weigh when it's all ready to go?"
"Including its safe-transport case, the total unit shipment weight is one thousand seven hundred sixty-four pounds."
Brown Rat frowned. "That's gonna be a stretch with only three of us."
"Mm. Especially since I'm not very strong," Kaban agreed, rubbing the back of her head ruefully. "We might be better off trying to clear a path for the bus to get here instead of taking the machine to it."
"Some of those chunks of concrete are a lot heavier than that, I reckon," Brown Rat said. "We better see about getting some backup. Let's go outside a sec."
The three of them retraced their path to the front of the lab and out. Once out on the street, Brown Rat took a couple of strides away from the other two, looked around, then put thumb and forefinger to either side of her impressive incisors. Drawing breath, she produced a piercing whistle that reverberated up the canyon of broken concrete and echoed in the distance for several seconds.
As the echoes faded, a dark shape flitted along one of the nearby rooftops, then sprang to the shell of a lower building next door, slid down a mangled drainpipe, and clattered down a pile of rubble before trotting over to join them.
The new arrival looked very much like Brown Rat, only a bit shorter and slimmer, and with black hair instead of brown. She was dressed in similar clothes, too, which were also black, but with the same yellowy-brown boots and gloves. Her red-black eyes and animal ears were a bit larger, her face slightly more pointed.
"What's up?" the newcomer asked. Her voice was hushed and a little hoarse, as though she weren't used to using it very much.
Order: Rodentia | Family: Muridae | Genus: Rattus
"Guys, this is my cousin, Black Rat. Blackie, this is Serval, and Ranger Kaban. They're from the Kyōshū Region."
"A Ranger? Seriously? Is she human?"
"Well, paint a white stripe down my back and call me a skunk," Black Rat mused. "So that's what they look like." Then, tilting her head, she asked, "What do you need?"
Brown Rat explained the situation as concisely as she could. Black Rat listened without interrupting, her head remaining on one side the whole time; then, straightening up, she said,
"Well, I like eating, so I guess I'm in. Serval and Kaban, huh? Call me Blackie. Has she said you can call her Norway yet?" she added, tilting her head at her cousin.
"She said she wasn't sure we qualified," Serval said.
"That was before the Sample Bun Incident," said Brown Rat with a sly grin, making Serval blush bright red. "I think we're all pretty good pals now."
Before Blackie could request clarification, if she intended to, the whole group's attention was captured by an unexpected sound: a distant, rolling percussive noise, drifting in from the direction of the sea.
"Thunder?" Serval wondered, looking quizzically up at the clear blue afternoon sky.
The four stood and listened for a few seconds. The distant rumbling and crashing carried on, intermittent but not stopping. Kaban's brow furrowed. It did sound like thunder, but there was something different about it. It had the wrong... the wrong rhythm, maybe? Like the tempo was all wrong, the crashes coming too rapidly, each peal going on for a little too long. It didn't sound to her like the normal storms that rolled in off the south sea from time to time.
Maybe they're different up here in An'in, she told herself, and said nothing. Being in this destroyed city on the edge of an unfamiliar region was probably just getting to her.
"That must be one hell of a storm," Norway mused. "Were you guys planning to get the food wingus back to Kyōshū by sea?"
"We'll have to," Kaban said, nodding. "It's way too heavy for any bird Friends we know to fly it back—even all of them working together. I hope we can find a boat."
"There's still one of the old ferries docked down at the front," Blackie said. "I don't know if its engines work, but it's still afloat."
"Well, we better hope Boss works fast," said Norway, eyeing the sky. "You don't wanna be trying to sail back to Kyōshū in a typhoon. Depending on how fast that storm gets here, we might have to wait it out in..."
She trailed off, looking perplexed, as what they all assumed was thunder suddenly kicked up in both frequency and intensity, becoming a furious, rolling cannonade that sounded less and less natural as it went on. Beyond the buildings blocking their view of the seafront, the sky flashed and flickered, like clouds in a thunderstorm—but the weather here in the city was still clear.
"What the...?" Serval wondered, and then, with a final shattering crash and the brightest flash yet, the mysterious storm fell silent.
"All right, that was weird," Blackie said after a few seconds of a quiet so sudden and deep it felt almost unnatural.
"Yeah," Norway agreed.
"Let's... go see how Boss is getting on," said Serval nervously.
Kaban nodded. "Good idea, Serv—"
"What the hell?!" Norway interrupted, pointing into the southward sky.
The others turned to look, just in time to see some flying object crash into the upper stories of one of the taller buildings across the square.
It was black, whatever it was, but apart from that, it was moving too fast for any of the observers to pick up any details. The object punched clean through the building it hit, hurtled down in an arc across the square, mowed down the remains of the subway station entrance on the corner, and plowed a deep furrow up the street, missing the Nutrition Lab by no more than a handful of yards. Chunks of pavement and rocks rained down. Wincing, Kaban crouched to shelter herself and Serval behind her backpack and helmet, while Norway and Blackie scrambled for cover, but none of them was hurt.
"Everyone OK?" Serval asked as the four of them emerged warily from cover.
"Think so," Norway said.
"I'm fine," said Blackie. "What the hell was that thing?"
"I don't know," Kaban replied, standing slowly up. Beside the Nutrition Lab, the dust was still settling over the fresh crater in the street, and nothing seemed to be moving down there.
Carefully, Kaban picked her way through the scattered chunks of concrete and asphalt to the edge of the crater, with Serval right by her side and the two rats following a hesitant few paces behind.
"Uh, that's probably dangerous—" Blackie said, but, as she reached the edge of the crater, Kaban gave a surprised cry and started down the slope. While Serval scrambled after her, Blackie and Norway halted at the edge to get a better look.
Lying at the bottom of the crater, surrounded by the broken stubs of severed utility lines and long-dry water pipes, lay—
"A Friend?" Norway said, baffled.
"Looks like one," Blackie agreed.
The figure lying crumpled at the bottom of the crater seemed to be, like them, a young woman with animal features, though neither of them could say what animal they represented. She was sturdily built and dressed all in black—turtleneck, frilled skirt, tall stompy boots—but her most immediately arresting features were the jagged plates on her back and her very long, powerful-looking black-scaled tail.
"Wow," Serval said. "I've never seen a Friend like her before. She's huge! And look at those things on her back! She reminds me of Hammerhead."
"She does, a bit," Kaban agreed. Crouching down by the mysterious figure's head, she bent to feel for a pulse. "Although you're right, she's a lot bigger than Hammy."
"What do you reckon, some kinda croc?" Norway wondered.
"Maybe," Blackie said. "I'm more concerned with what could have done this to her."
"Well, we're not gonna be able to ask her that, poor thing," Norway said, bowing her head sadly. "Rest in peace, unknown Friend."
Kaban looked up and shook her head. "She's alive."
"You're kidding. After that? Wow."
At that moment, the new arrival dispelled any doubt as to her survival by abruptly sitting up, shedding little bits of rubble as she did so and causing all four Friends to recoil in surprise.
"Oh! Be careful," said Kaban. "You could be badly hurt, you shouldn't move."
"Urrrgh," the mystery girl not-really-replied, dragging her hands down her face. Then, pausing, she looked through her fingers at Kaban. Her eyes were red, much brighter red than the two rat Friends', and the look in the one that was now fixed on Kaban was one of fathomless puzzlement. She lowered her hands from her face and looked at them, turning them over a couple of times, deeply confused.
"Uh... I'm... I'm Kaban," said Kaban hesitantly. "Can you... tell me who you are?"
"Uh?" the girl in black replied, peering at her again.
"Kaban," repeated Kaban, pointing at herself; then, pointing at the mystery girl, she asked, "You are?"
The unknown Friend waved a hand as if to say "not now, not now," pressing the other palm to her forehead, and got slowly, unsteadily to her feet.
"I think her mind's still back over there," Norway opined, slanting a thumb in the direction she'd flown in from.
Standing, the strange girl was even bigger than Serval had originally suspected. She towered over Kaban, whose head barely came up to her midsection. Kaban was not a particularly tall girl, true, but even so, Serval now gauged the newcomer's height to be at least seven feet, possibly closer to eight.
Still, for all her immense size and obvious power—she had, after all, just survived crashing through a building and falling from a substantial height, hitting the street so hard she punched a ten-foot-deep crater in it, and evidently without so much as a broken bone—she didn't seem particularly dangerous. She moved slowly, hesitantly, and though she was clearly confused and dismayed to find herself surrounded by four strangers, she wasn't reacting to them in any way aggressively.
Now she let Kaban lead her up out of the crater and sit her down on one of the bigger blocks of concrete near the Nutrition Lab entrance, to be looked over more carefully for injuries. Kaban could find none, apart from her continued disorientation and apparent muteness—after all she'd been through, her clothes weren't even torn—but told her to sit still and rest, anyway. If she couldn't speak, the newcomer at least seemed to understand when spoken to, for she nodded and stayed put, resting her head in her hands again.
"OK, so... now what?" Norway wondered as the four regrouped by the door.
"Well, we can't abandon her here," Serval said.
"No, you're right, we'll have to try to bring her with us," Kaban said. "She doesn't seem hostile, just confused. Maybe she'll recover if she has a chance to rest, and we can find out who she is and where she came from."
"I guess that makes sense," Blackie agreed. "In the state she's in now, she won't last long trying to fend for herself, even as tough as she seems to be." She cast an uneasy glance back along the stranger's flight path. "I don't like not knowing what was going on over there."
"I don't either," said Kaban. "I'll go see how Lucky Beast is doing. Blackie, can you guide us to the ferryboat when I get back?"
"Sure thing," Blackie told her, and Kaban went back into the lab.
"What are we going to call this one?" Norway asked. "'Hey you' seems inappropriate."
"Roadbuster?" Blackie suggested, with the first smile Kaban or Serval had seen from her.
"Hey, stranger, can you tell us your name?" Serval asked, leaning down next to the newcomer (who was nearly as tall as she was even seated).
The black-clad girl looked at her with a less dazed, but no less baffled, expression than she'd given Kaban. Then, slowly and with evident discomfort—as if she'd forgotten how her mouth worked—she said, "Go... ji?"
"Goji?" Serval replied, tilting her head. The stranger looked back at her for a few seconds, then slowly, hesitantly nodded. She didn't look entirely convinced by her own answer, but Serval figured it was the best she was going to do right now.
"OK, then," she said cheerfully. "We'll call you Goji-chan. I'm Serval, and this is Brown Rat and Black Rat. You already met Kaban. Don't worry—we'll look after you."
Kaban returned a few minutes later to report that the device was packed up and ready to go; they just had to figure out how they were going to carry it.
Between Serval, Norway, and Blackie, getting it out to the street wasn't much trouble; it weighed nearly a ton, but that wasn't too bad divided between three Friends. The problem was that the smooth black plastic case was plainly designed to be carried by some kind of machine, not three people working together. Getting it through the clean, level-floored corridors of the Nutrition Lab was one thing; maneuvering it in the rubble-strewn, pockmarked streets was going to be something else again.
"Goji-chan" sat on her block of concrete and watched with evident incomprehension as the three, with Kaban's well-meaning supervision, tried different holds and arrangements of themselves. Nothing seemed to be working, and Kaban had just about decided to go back inside and look for something she could make an improvised carry harness out of...
... when the black-clad stranger suddenly rose to her feet, walked over to them, and picked up the case, hefting it onto her shoulder like a person might carry a baulk of timber.
"... OK, that's one way to do it," Norway observed, sounding impressed.
"Uh... thank you?" Kaban said hesitantly.
"Thanks, Goji-chan!" said Serval brightly. "That's a real help! Are you sure you'll be OK carrying it?"
Goji-chan made certain of the case's balance on her shoulder, then nodded with an affirmative-sounding grunt.
"I guess she's decided she likes us," said Blackie. "That's a relief. OK, let's head out. The sooner I get you guys to the boat, the happier I'll be."
"Oh—just a second," Kaban told her. "Lucky Beast, will you please lock up the Lab?"
"Affirmative," Lucky Beast replied. After doing so, it returned to Kaban's side and announced, "I will accompany you to activate the ferry's systems and confirm your authorization. After that I must remain here. I am not programmed to operate outside the An'in Region."
"I understand. Thank you." Kaban knelt down, taking off her backpack, and tucked the little robot into it, then shouldered it again and stood. "Might as well save you some walking," she observed with a smile. "All right, Blackie, lead on."
It was late in the afternoon by the time they reached the ferry dock. There was no sign of foul weather; the sky, just beginning to darken toward evening, was perfectly clear apart from a few puffy white clouds—so clear that Kaban could see a glint of light on the horizon, which she realized after a moment was the afternoon sun flashing off the Sandstar crystals at the peak of the Great Mountain in the center of Kyōshū Island. Whatever the strange disturbance off to the south had been earlier, there was no sign of it now. Even the sea itself seemed unusually calm. The boat Black Rat had told them about was there at the pier, shabby with age but afloat and on an even keel.
"That's the same kind of boat as the one from back then," Serval observed.
Kaban nodded. "The Park must have used a standard type for all the inter-island ferries," she mused. "Hopefully this one still works too."
"Well, I guess it's goodbye for now," said Norway. "Good luck, you guys."
Blackie nodded agreement. "I hope you can get that thing to work when you get back to Kyōshū, for everyone's sake."
"Me too," Kaban said, nodding. "Thank you two for all of your help."
"It'll be fine," Serval assured them. "Between them, Kaban and Lucky can fix anything."
Kaban blushed slightly at the praise, but chose not to address it directly, instead asking Goji, "Do you want to come back with us to our island, Goji-chan? There are Friends there who might be able to help you more than we... can... what the?"
She trailed off in puzzlement and concern, her train of thought interrupted, as the sea along a nearby section of the waterfront suddenly began to bubble and churn. The water almost seemed to be boiling.
"Now what the hell?" Norway asked rhetorically.
A moment later she had her answer, as a huge shape erupted from beneath the surface and lunged, streaming water, up onto the cracked pavement of the embarcadero. It was so bizarre, so completely out of keeping with their experiences, that it momentarily defied classifications by the minds of its onlookers. Only after a few seconds' baffled terror did Kaban recognize it as a crab, but a colossal one—bigger than a Japari Bus, hundreds of times bigger than it should be.
And, she realized after a moment more's horrified contemplation, it seemed to be made of metal. Some kind of... machine?
"What the crap is that," Blackie demanded, as if expecting anyone else around her to know.
"I have no idea," Norway replied. "Doesn't look like any Cerulean I've ever seen. Or smell like one, either."
The enormous metal crab seemed to notice them then. It turned, its legs punching little divots in the street, and regarded them with eerily glowing green eyes, and then it did something even more terrifying: It spoke.
"Well, well, well," it said, its voice—strangely calm and mellow-sounding, coming from such a monstrous creature—sending a shiver of repressed mammalian panic up Kaban's spine.
"Oh great, it can talk too," Serval said, sounding not too far from panic herself.
"What have we here?" the crab went on.
"I think," said Blackie matter-of-factly, "we are in a lot of trouble now."
"Well, there's your bunch of hooey," Serval told Norway with a nervous giggle.
"I stand corrected."
"What do we do now?"
"I dunno about you," Norway said after a moment's thought, "but I plan to scream and run."
Through all of this byplay, while the other four all edged away from the monstrous crab, Goji-chan stood rooted to the spot, staring intently at the creature with the expression of someone who can almost, but not quite, remember something important. Even under these conditions, Kaban noticed the look, but didn't understand what could be causing it.
"Goji-chan?" she asked quietly. The taller girl's scarlet eyes flicked momentarily to her, and as they returned to the crab, Kaban was startled to see them abruptly lose their confused, vacant glaze and take on a look of concentrated intent.
"X," Goji murmured, her voice grating in her throat, and Kaban couldn't miss the undercurrent of loathing it carried.
Before she had a chance to reflect on that, though, the metal crab moved... but not to advance. Instead, it reared up and... changed, its parts rearranging themselves in a weird mechanical dance that left it in a completely different shape. When the process was finished, all of a second later, it loomed before them in the vague shape of a person—albeit a person made of metal, twenty feet tall, and bedecked with bizarre vestiges of its crab-like form.
"Ah, ah, ah," said the creature in a cheerfully mocking tone, wagging a finger at her.
Goji stood still a moment longer, as though facing off against the metal giant across the twenty or so yards that separated them, her body visibly quivering with tension. Then she abruptly dropped the food machine's travel case, scooped up all four Friends like so many sacks of laundry, and ran for it.
"You can outrun me, but you'll never outlast me," the creature's voice, back in its "pleasantly mocking" mode, called after them.
Goji ran flat-out for four blocks, until she came to a bus shelter that was still mostly intact. There she stopped, depositing her four passengers in a somewhat disorderly heap behind what little cover it offered.
"No—the machine!" Kaban cried, trying to get past her and go back. "We need that!"
"I couldn't get you four out of there fast enough carrying a ton of baggage," Goji told her, effortlessly holding her back with one arm. "Don't worry. X will ignore it. You can get it back when I'm finished with him."
"What—what—what the hell is that thing?" Norway panted.
"An experiment," Goji replied. "A mistake. One I've been assigned to correct." Turning away, she said, "You four stay here. He'll lose interest in you now that he's got me to deal with. If you stay low and don't draw attention to yourselves, you should be OK."
"Um... who are you?" Kaban wondered.
"My name's Shingoji. I'm with an agency you've never heard of, from a world you've never seen. But I'm on your side and I'll do what I can to protect you."
So saying, she straightened to her full height and walked away, heading back to intercept the approaching enemy.
"... OK, so, she's pretty cool," Blackie observed.
"Yeah," Serval agreed, and the four crouched behind their meager cover to watch.
"Ready for Round Two, X?" Goji asked as she came back within earshot of her quarry. Cracking her knuckles, she added, "I won't go so easy on you this time."
"Please," replied X in a chiding tone. "'X' is so impersonal, don't you think? Call me... Rampage."
"Uh-huh," said Goji, unimpressed; and with no further preliminaries, she leaped to the attack.
From her vantage point, Kaban realized two things in short order. One was that the freaky crab-robot-thing was even more powerful than its stature implied. In addition to enormous physical strength, it had weapons she didn't even have names for, weapons capable of laying waste to its surroundings. She understood now what had reduced so much of Renraku City to rubble; she was seeing the process continued, live and in person, right now.
The other was that Goji-chan, despite being significantly smaller, was even stronger than that. She was easily able to jump two or three times her own height, high enough that she was striking downward at Rampage's face. When she connected, the hulking robot was staggered as though he had been hit by someone his own size, or even larger.
Kaban had seen this kind of thing before. It was a thing that Friends who came from bigger animals could do—Friends like Hippo, Brown Bear, and African Bush Elephant. If they summoned their inner power, released their wild sides, they had all the presence and strength of their original forms in the bodies of Friends. If the same phenomenon was at work here, she reflected, Goji-chan's original form must have been very large indeed.
Both combatants had immense physical power and a tremendous capacity to absorb punishment without obvious injury. Beyond that, both seemed able to recover from any injuries their opponents did manage to inflict in unnaturally short spans of time. Between them, they managed to level more or less everything that had still been standing within a three-block radius of the point where the fight began, without seeming to have accomplished much of anything.
And yet, when the currents of their battle brought them back near enough for Kaban to get a good look, she realized that Goji-chan was taking the worst of the fight so far. They both recovered quickly, but damage to Rampage seemed to repair itself almost instantly, and as she steadied herself on a block of rubble and caught her breath, Goji was visibly bruised and bloodied.
Think, Kaban, think, she told herself. That monster has to have a weak point somewhere. Something Goji-chan can—wait, what's it doing?
For Rampage had paused in his advance up the street. Something had caught his eye, diverting his focus away from his adversary. For a moment, Goji was pleased; it gave her a moment longer to pull herself together, concentrate on the energy recovery techniques her mother and father had taught her, and stoke her internal fires for the next round.
Then, too late, she realized what had caught the beast's attention. Somewhere along the line, she hadn't noticed exactly when, the case she'd been carrying for Kaban and company had been knocked over in the melee. It lay over on its side with the lid sprung open, and in the early-evening shadows that now lined the wreckage-strewn street, the glow of its power source was plainly visible.
"What's this?" said Rampage, his green-lit optics going wide with surprise. "No. Can it be?" He bent and tore the cover the rest of the way off the case, throwing it carelessly aside, then drew back in astonishment. "It is!" he declared. Then, looking up, he gave Goji and her friends his hideous mechanical face's version of a smile.
"For three centuries I've been trying in vain to get my hands on this," he said, "and then you go and bring it to me. Why, I'm almost... touched."
"What the hell's it talking about?" Norway muttered.
"Search me," Blackie replied. "What does an insane death robot want with a machine that makes food?"
They were startled to discover that Rampage could hear them at that distance, because his next remark was clearly an answer to Blackie's rhetorical question:
"Oh, don't mistake my purpose, subcreature. I couldn't care less what the humans who once infested this planet were doing with the Hypercube."
And then, before anyone could react, he drove a hand through the machine's transparent case, seized the Sandstar crystal at its heart, and tore it out, reducing the rest of the equipment to tangled wreckage.
"No!" Kaban cried, bolting involuntarily to her feet. "Why?! Hundreds of people were counting on that machine—they need it to survive!"
Rampage arched a brow ridge. "Really?" he said, sounding genuinely interested. "How extraordinarily..." He trailed off, contemplating the glow of the crystal for a moment, then looked up with that twisted pseudo-smile on his face again and added cruelly, "... satisfying."
"I don't know why you want that crystal so bad, X," Goji said, her voice low and tightly restrained. "And I don't care. You're not leaving this place alive."
Rampage laughed. "Oh, my dear. You have no idea how many square-jawed little do-gooders have said that to me." A darker, more genuine smile. "They were all delicious."
Then, becoming mockingly brisk, he went on, "Now then. With the Hypercube procured, I have much to do, so let's wrap this up, shall we?"
So saying, he produced a colossal three-barreled cannon from somewhere, leveled it, and launched a volley of missiles—but not at Goji. His point of aim was instead several degrees to her left.
Both Kaban and Serval had stared oncoming extinction in the face before. Unfamiliar though they were with the weapon, they recognized its approach at once.
Serval reacted faster, with the finely-honed instincts of a non-apex predator—one optimized to strike, but also to flee, and to know when to do which. Catching Kaban around the waist with one arm, she felt her wild nature releasing within her as she prepared to make the greatest leap of her life. In the back of her mind, she regretted abandoning Norway and Blackie to fend for themselves, but in a situation like this, she knew they would understand. In extremis, every Friend for herself; that was the ancient law.
In her heart, she knew the effort was probably in vain, specifically because she was breaking that law. She might have been able to jump clear by herself, but carrying another person, she was unlikely to get far enough to escape. But to abandon Kaban and live on without her, with the knowledge that she had done so? No.
Better to go together.
As the moment elongated, she wondered abstractly whether there would be anything on the other side, and if they would be together there. That kind of thing had never crossed her mind before she met Kaban. Although a sapient being, she'd still had the mindset of a wild creature of the Savannah. No yesterday, no tomorrow, and certainly no eventual ending. Just the eternal moment called Now.
How weird, she thought, to think of that now...
As fast as Serval was, Goji was faster. Uttering a word none of the Friends had ever heard before, she flung herself headlong to the left, interposing herself between them and the incoming fire. Explosions blanketed that end of the street, engulfing the Friends' former cover in dust and smoke. The shockwave struck all four of them, sending them tumbling painfully away from the blast zone—but Goji's body intercepted the worst of it, including the bulk of the heat and all the shrapnel.
Thanks to that, Serval's desperate leap and the two rats' frantic scramble for better cover were not in vain; though knocked for a loop, none of the four was seriously hurt.
The same couldn't be said of Goji, who fell to her knees and toppled forward, smoke trailing from her shredded clothing. She caught herself, barely, from falling completely, but lay crumpled on elbows and knees, retching blood so hot it sizzled and steamed where it splattered to the pavement.
"Well, that was predictable," Rampage observed dryly as he advanced to stand in front of her. Reaching down with his free hand, he seized her by the neck and hauled her up, not just upright but completely off her feet, and held her face-to-face with himself.
"You realize, of course, that they're all going to die anyway," Rampage continued, his tone conversational. "In fact, I may wipe this entire planet clean of organic life before I leave it, just because the place has given me so much trouble." Pulling her a little closer, he inquired, "Does that frighten you? It should. After all, it means not only have you failed to destroy me, you were unable to prevent the extinction of an entire species." He levered her out to arm's length and began to close his hand, growling, "Take that knowledge with you to wherever you organics go."
Goji blinked, the fog in her scarlet eyes clearing, and bared jagged, bloody teeth in a shark-like snarl.
"You talk too much," she rasped, and then her long tail whipped up and around like a kusarigama's chain, smashing into the side of his head.
The blow was so powerful it actually broke Rampage's neck, momentarily interrupting all voluntary motor functions in his body. With a sound that was more electronic feedback than vocalization, he was flung like a ragdoll off to Goji's right, into the tangled remains of one of the buildings that had once lined this street. Released by the sudden slackening of his hand, she landed on her feet, but her legs wouldn't hold her; she crumpled again, to hands and knees this time.
With an almost musical sound, the cubical Energon crystal he had wrenched from the Friends' vital machine fell to the cracked pavement, about halfway between the two combatants.
Slowly, feeling herself starting to grey out again, Goji crawled toward it, inching painfully forward on legs like jelly. If she could reach it before Rampage recovered... but she could already hear him thrashing around and bellowing, pulling himself out of the rubble-filled basement she'd knocked him into.
Spirits damn that immortal Spark, she thought, and grimly applied herself to her task, as hopeless as it now appeared to be.
Kaban, still pulling herself together, wasn't sure exactly what Goji-chan was trying to do, or why reaching the Sandstar cube before Rampage would help her; but she knew a purposeful action when she saw it, and she could see that her strange friend needed a little more time. Just a little would probably do it, but how could Kaban buy her even that? With her own weak little body, and Serval out cold...
Ah! she thought, and turned to the two rats, who were making their way groggily toward her.
"Norway, do you remember telling me the buildings around here aren't very stable?" she asked.
"Uh-huh?" Norway replied, puzzled. "Not gonna lie, I don't see how that's important right now."
Kaban told her. As she did, a pair of slow smiles spread across the faces of Norway and Blackie.
"Leave it to us," Blackie said, and the two of them disappeared into the ruins.
With a snarl of triumph, crab-mode Rampage pulled himself free of the last of the rubble and placed a foot on solid ground, then another, and another. His opponent was still down; she seemed to be trying to crawl to the Hypercube, for all the good it would do her. Now that he was free, he could easily beat her to it. He thought he would let her get within arm's reach and then crush the life out of her, just to prove a point. And then he would deal with her little frien—what?
At almost the same moment, the leaning shells of the tower blocks to either side of the hole he'd just dragged himself out of cracked, shifted, and fell together, shattering into great slabs and chunks overhead. Rampage bellowed with rage and consternation as the wreckage rained down, knocked him back into the hole, and re-buried him in fresh kilotons of broken duracrete.
In what had been the basement of one of the fallen blocks, Black Rat grinned a nasty grin, sparkles of expended Sandstar flickering from her incisors, and patted the freshly-gnawed-off support column in front of her.
"Never corner a rat," she remarked, then turned and flitted back into the shadows.
The respite was short-lived. This time, the rubble burying Rampage exploded, blasted apart from within by salvos from his heavy weapons. When he reared up out of the basement hole again, it was in yet a third form, that of a weird armored vehicle with that giant three-barrelled cannon on the front of it. He had done himself some damage, unleashing all that heavy ordnance in a confined space, but he didn't care. He was at such a pitch of rage right now, his body felt nothing.
"I may have to allocate more time than planned to making you all suffer," he observed, pivoting to train the massive cannon on Goji—only to discover, to his momentary dismay, that she had reached the Hypercube in the time it had taken him to extricate himself a second time.
The dismay passed quickly, though, because it was such an obviously empty gesture. She had no way of employing it as a weapon, and it wasn't as though she could try to escape with it; she couldn't even stand up, let alone pick up the cube and run.
All the same, she had obviously suffered greatly to reach it; the hand she now reached out and placed atop it was trembling with effort and pain, and she leaned on it for a moment, panting.
Chuckling darkly, Rampage returned to robot mode, cannon in hand, and theatrically cricked his repaired neck as he strolled unhurriedly toward her. "And what," he inquired mock-pleasantly, "were you planning to do with that?"
Goji slowly, painfully raised her head to look him in the eye.
"You never studied," she said; and then, closing the hand atop the Hypercube into a fist, she raised it, gathered all her remaining strength, and smashed it.
"What?!" Rampage blurted, drawing back in utter disbelief, as what had been the most perfect naturally-formed Energon tesseract he had ever seen in his life was reduced to a meaningless clutter of tiny cubes. From a four-dimensional source of limitless energy to a mere few kilograms of ordinary crystalline Energon, priceless to pedestrian, in an instant. He was so horrifed, so... so outraged by the sheer effrontery of the gesture that, for once in his warped and miserable existence, he was rendered utterly speechless.
What Goji did next was even stranger. Still hunched over the shattered remains of the Hypercube, she scooped up a big handful of the little cubes, gazed into their light for a moment...
... and then stuffed them into her mouth.
Crunch, and the same multichromate glow began to flicker and shine through the jagged slits and tears in her black clothing. It shone out of rows of gill-like slots or fissures in the black-armored hide of her tail as well, as though her very flesh were illuminated from within.
Crunch, and sparkling motes of Energon overspill—the Friends perceived it as Sandstar in the process of being expended—filled the air around her.
Slowly, she began to rise, climbing to her feet from her pain-wracked crouch.
Crunch, and the Energon glow reached her eyes as she straightened to her full height.
Her face set in a furious snarl, Goji looked Rampage straight in the eye, crunched the Energon between her jagged teeth one last time, and swallowed. The radiance shining from within her brightened still further, then began arcing like electricity among the plates on her back.
Order: Daikaijū | Family: Metasauridae | Genus: Gojirasaurus
His mind all but blank with a mix of rage and a most unfamiliar sensation he did not immediately recognize as terror, Rampage shifted back to crab mode and waded in, determined to crush the life from this wretched creature with his bare claws. So she could absorb Energon somehow. No matter! He still had the advantages in mass and physical power, and he would—
Goji met his charge, caught both his claws with her bare hands, and halted him as if he'd crashed into a full-power force barrier. For a few moments, they stood locked together, each exerting their full power, face to face.
"Do you know Nietzsche?" Goji inquired through gritted teeth. "'Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.'" She chuckled darkly. "Well, I was already a monster, and now I'm going to show you how the Nakajima do things downtown, you crab-faced son of a bitch."
With that, she flexed her knees, got herself under Rampage's claws, and thrust upward with all the power in her legs. Flung up and over backward, Rampage skidded a good twenty yards up the street before he managed to shift to robot mode and halt himself, tumbling over and coming up facing her.
"Die, die, die, die!" he bellowed, unleashing his full arsenal. Shells from his cannon, energy blasts, artificial lightning all lashed at Goji, momentarily obscuring her from view in a cloud of boiling grey-black smoke.
His weapon power expended for the moment, Rampage ceased fire and stood, peering into the smoke, ignoring the chiding of his status computer and scanning for the proof that his all-out bombardment had done for his foe.
Instead, something moved in the cloud of smoke—a flicker of light—
Goji emerged from the cloud, wisps of smoke trailing from the glowing rents in her clothes. There was something vaguely bestial about her carriage now: her powerful legs slightly crouched, back slightly hunched, arms bent at the elbows with hands held straight out in front of her, palms up, fingers bent like claws. Her eyes were shining like torches with the Sandstar's light.
She took two strides toward Rampage, stopped, threw back her shoulders, and raised her face to the sky, her mouth swinging open. From here, too, rainbow light poured out like the glow from an opened furnace—and with it came a thunderous roar, at once guttural and yet slightly shrill. It was a sound that somehow combined an animal's rage with the shriek of tortured metal, and seemed much too large to have come from anything as small as a humanoid woman.
Her challenge issued, Goji lowered her head and charged, making for him at a dead sprint, the soles of her heavy boots throwing up clods of broken ground. Rampage set himself to meet her charge, but before he could finish shunting all remaining power to his linear actuators, she was upon him. Her fists seemed to strike like explosions now, blasting out chunks of his armor plating. She smashed his defense like a plate-glass window, finishing up with a punch to the center of his chest that caved in his plastron and sent him skidding back still farther.
Howling with fury and fear, Rampage produced his final hold-out weapon, an Energon blade, and mounted a countercharge. She met it with an air of contempt, letting the blade go past her, then trapped and disjointed his arm before whirling into a complex throw that finished with another spinning tail slap. By this point she had propelled him nearly half a mile from where their fight had begun.
Rampage dragged himself to his feet once more, struggling to regain control of himself. At this point it was obvious that he had to get out of here. In the state she was in now, with all that Energon somehow coursing through her, there was no way he could win this fight. His reserves were gone. He had to regroup, recharge, regenerate.
Just before he would have turned and dived into the sea, though, he spotted the little pink-and-red figure of that human, just barely in sight amid the rubble back by the battle's origin point.
He had one missile left, if he could get the launcher back online. That would be a fitting parting gift. It would spin a defeat into a draw, if not a tactical victory, and leave his foes with a bitter reminder that no one defied Rampage and came away unscathed.
"What in the universe are you?!" he demanded, partly to buy his weapon repair system time, and partly out of genuine incredulity.
Goji took a few more measured strides toward him, the nimbus of Energon light around her still brightening—its colors beginning to deepen. When she was just far enough away that she wouldn't have to shout, she stopped and told him in a low, even voice,
"I am Nakajima Shingoji. Daughter of Gojira the Hunter—the Beast of Cold Fire—and of Mosura the Wise, Herald of Storms. I am the Black Huntress. The Beast Who Hunts Beasts. And today is the day I end you, X."
As she spoke, the light shining from Goji's torn clothes and crackling around her spinal plates changed, brightening still further and shifting from the rainbow hues of Sandstar to an eerie, otherworldly violet. Her glowing eyes, staring coldly at him, suddenly went completely black—the closure, although Rampage didn't realize it, of protective third eyelids. She opened her mouth again, her jaw swinging uncannily wide, and breathed out a great gout of black smoke. Heavier than air, it poured onto the ground in front of her and rolled forward in an oily cloud, reaching Rampage in moments and roiling around his legs.
A moment later, as if sparked somewhere deep within her, the smoke ignited, becoming an incandescent torrent of fire. The flame front raced up the cloud, exploding everything around Rampage and engulfing him in flames, its shock wave blowing the remains of the facades off nearby buildings.
Rampage began to laugh. This display was very dramatic, but no mere fire was going to pose a threat to him, however explosive it might be. A meaningless light show! Nothing more!
His launcher came back online. Savoring the moment, he raised the weapon and targeted the human.
"Too little, my dear, and too—" he began.
The stream of fire still issuing from Goji's mouth narrowed and brightened, like the flame of an acetylene torch as the operator fine-tunes the oxygen feed, until it coalesced into a finger-thick beam of concentrated violet light. This raved across the distance between them with a sound like a razor across glass, striking Rampage square in the center of his fractured plastron. Instinctively, he threw aside his weapon and raised his hands as if to protect himself, but the plasma beam took only moments to eat through his armor and impale his supposedly immortal Spark.
The irony of it all was the last thing to register on his consciousness, and his hysterical laughter was drowned out by the shattering explosion of his twisted essence unraveling. The blast flattened everything for blocks around, reduced Rampage's shell to atoms, and could clearly be heard—although not comprehended—as far away as the Japari Library.
Just beyond the edge of the blast zone, Goji closed her sparking, fizzling jaws on the last of the violet glow, stood regarding the burning crater for a few moments, then turned away.
"Nakajima to Steelhaven," she said, raising a hand to her ear. "Mission accomplished. X is down. No need for the containment protocol—Spark death confirmed, I repeat, Spark death confirmed."
"I saw the plasma spike from here," the voice of her mission coordinator replied on her comm implant. "Good job. Give me a vector for pickup and let's get out of here."
"Negative," Goji said. "I've made a mess here. I'm going to see what I can do to help clean it up. This is a UCS, so stay out of sight for the time being."
After a moment's pause to take that news on board, her handler replied, "Roger, understand. Call if you need me. Steelhaven out."
Lowering her hand, she stood for a moment in thought, then started walking with heavy tread back toward her friends.
The thunder of the blast was still reverberating as the four Friends pulled themselves, blinking and shaking their heads, back up out of cover. At the far end of the embarcadero, they could just make out Goji-chan, cast in silhouette by the flames of the burning crater she stood looking into. Off to her right, what remained of one of the streetside buildings toppled forward and fell into the street like a parting comment. Goji's silhouette didn't even flinch.
"What... just happened?" Norway wondered, yawning to pop her ears.
"It's cute how you think any of us would know," Blackie observed dryly.
"I... I think that was Goji-chan's wild release," Serval said, a note of awe in her voice.
"What in the hell kind of animal does that?!" Norway demanded.
"Kaban, do you—" Serval started to ask, but Kaban wasn't there. She didn't seem moved by the spectacle at all; as soon as it was safe, she'd left cover, put down her backpack next to the chunk of rubble she'd been sheltering behind, and run to the wreckage of the food machine.
"... Oh," Serval finished, her face falling. In all the excitement, she had managed to forget, if only momentarily, that the monstrous metal creature Goji called "X" had destroyed it.
"... Crap," Norway muttered.
The three arrived at Kaban's side to find her on her knees by the remains of the machine, holding a couple of the broken pieces in her hands and futilely trying to fit them back together. Without a word, Serval knelt down and hugged her from behind, trying as best she could to comfort her. Not knowing quite what to do with themselves, the two rats stood a little way off to one side.
Catching movement out of the corner of her eye, Blackie turned her head and saw Goji's silhouette moving against the dying flames.
"Um... she's coming back this way," Blackie said. "Maybe we should get out of here."
Serval looked up, puzzled, without releasing Kaban. "Why?"
Blackie gave her an are-you-kidding-me look. "Uh, did you see what she just did? Now that she's got her wits about her, maybe she's remembered that she fancies a bit of Friend brûlée for dessert."
"Don't be silly," Serval told her. "Also, you live alone in an abandoned city. How do you even know that word?"
Despite herself, Norway snorted. "Really? Did you just ask a rat how she knows a word about food?"
Serval didn't reply; her attention had been drawn in the other direction. Kaban's backpack had just fallen over and was now rolling around on the ground, saying repeatedly, "Help. Help. Help."
"Boss!" she said, brightening. "Maybe he'll know what to do. Somebody go help Boss!"
"Hang on, I gotcha," said Norway. Righting the bag, she opened its flap and drew out the ruffled but unharmed Lucky Beast that had come with them from the Nutrition Lab.
It didn't acknowledge her, of course, but when she set it down on its feet, it waddled over to stand next to Kaban. Without being asked, it illuminated the crystal lens affixed to the front of its body, using itself as an impromptu flashlight to light up the wreckage.
Goji arrived then, her expression grim, but calm. Whatever fury had possessed her during her battle with the metal creature, that creature's destruction seemed to have sated it. Kaban noticed her approach and looked up (and up, and up), tears of frustration tracking her face.
"We were so close," Kaban said helplessly.
Goji crouched down beside the machine, surveyed its remains for a moment, then shook her head regretfully.
"I'm sorry, you guys," she said. "I had no idea Rampage was after part of this thing. I assumed he'd ignore it, and you, and focus on me." She reached out and gently took one of the pieces from Kaban's hand, regarded it for a moment, then placed it back amid the other shards and went on, "Can you tell me why it's so important?"
Kaban pulled herself away from her knowingly pointless attempt to reassemble the machine and raised her head again, meeting Goji's eyes. They were back to red again, all traces of the strange glow that had overtaken her gone now. Even with the daylight faded to a dull glow in the west and only Lucky Beast's lamp to light the area, she noticed that the taller girl's once-shredded clothes were whole again, all her injuries erased.
Of course, she thought irrelevantly. The Sandstar...
After a moment's pause to corral her thoughts, the answer she gave out loud was, "It was our last chance to save Japari Park."
By the time Kaban had finished the more detailed explanation that followed, the last of the daylight was gone. Goji sat in silence for a moment, absorbing the information she'd just been given with a grave frown on her face.
She was drawing breath to speak when Lucky Beast suddenly declared, "Alert. Alert. The Mark Two Production Unit has sustained irreparable damage in transit."
"Nothin' gets past you, does it, Boss," Norway mumbled under her breath.
"Please come with me back to the Advanced Care and Nutrition Laboratory," the robot continued, pivoting and heading off inland. "I will prepare the backup unit."
Blinking in surprise, the five looked at each other for several silent, quizzical seconds.
"Did Boss just say 'backup unit'?" Blackie asked, and then they were all scrambling to catch up.
They arrived back at the Nutrition Lab to find it abuzz with Lucky Beasts. It was hard to tell how many of them were about, since they were all identical, but Kaban counted at least four all in the lobby at once as they hurried here and there on inscrutable errands, carrying mysterious pieces of equipment atop their heads. That in addition to the one she and Serval had brought with them from the Administration Special Area, which stood on what had been the reception counter and seemed to be supervising all the activity.
Noticing her entrance, the supervisory Lucky Beast turned around and told her, "Preparations to relocate the Mark II backup unit are now under way, Chief Kaban." After a brief pause in which it scrutinized Kaban and her companions with various hidden sensors, it went on, "I detect significant fatigue and superficial injuries. Would you like to make use of the Laboratory's VIP guest quarters?"
"Ooh, that sounds good," Serval said.
"In just a moment," Kaban agreed, nodding. "First I'd like some more information about this backup unit."
"Technically, it is the Mark II prototype," Lucky Beast explained. "It functions in the same way, but the hardware is less elegantly constructed and not suitable for mass production. It was dismantled once the production test-type unit was completed. My colleagues are retrieving it from storage and reassembling it now. It will take approximately ten hours to complete this process and get the unit fully prepared for transport. In the meantime, you should rest." The robot intercepted a passing duplicate with a burst of digital code, then went on, "This Lucky Beast will guide you to the VIP quarters."
Sensing that it would be useless to press the issue further, Kaban nodded acquiescence and let the second Lucky Beast lead her group down the hall. Presently it conducted them into a large sitting room fitted out with comfortable-looking sofas and chairs. Several doors led off from this room into others.
"This is the VIP suite," the Lucky Beast explained. "Please select whichever bedroom you prefer. I will bring fresh Japari Buns for you and the Friends in your care."
"Thank you," said Kaban, and then added awkwardly, "Um, hold the silver vine, please," which drew snorts of laughter from Norway and Serval (somewhat embarrassed laughter, in the latter case).
"Unfortunately, the Mark II system is down at the moment," the robot told her. "Only conventional Mark I Japari Buns are presently available."
"That's fine. Thanks," Kaban repeated, and the Lucky Beast turned and trundled out.
"What's a 'bedroom'?" Norway wondered.
"Humans used to have a room in their homes set aside just for sleeping in," Blackie told her. "I've seen 'em in some of the abandoned high-rise apartments."
"Seriously? That doesn't seem very efficient," Norway mused. She went to one of the doors, opened it, and said, "I'll be damned, it's true! Look at this! It really is a room with just a bed in it." She turned back and looked at Kaban, remarking, "Your people were weird, Ranger."
Kaban, at a loss, just shrugged a little helplessly. Letting it pass, Norway went to the next door, then the next, then stopped and said, "Now what the heck is this one for?"
"Let me see," Blackie said, moving up next to her. "Oh, one of these. I never did figure out what these are for. That big thing looks like some kind of drinking trough, but they're always empty."
Serval crowded up behind them, looking between their shoulders, then laughed. "You two have been living in the ruins for too long! That's a bathroom. Here, I'll show you," she went on, then herded the two into the room and shut the door behind her.
Kaban, who had wisely identified a situation in which she did not need to get involved, stayed put in the living room. She and Goji stood for a few moments in a somewhat awkward silence, looking at each other.
My report on this mission is going to be off the chain even by our usual standards, Goji thought to herself, but what she said out loud was, "My mom sleeps in volcano calderas sometimes, but only when she's full-size. Mostly she has a townhouse near Republic City University."
Kaban clearly had no idea what she was talking about, but was just as clearly too tactful, or too bashful, or possibly just too preoccupied with the current situation to say so. She just nodded with a noncommittal sound.
"Before I got my own place," Goji went on, "I spent half my time there, and the other half at Dad's condo in New Avalon."
She was aware that she was rambling by this point, but didn't have the energy to stop herself. The last of the fumes from the evening's Energon shot were burning off, and she was going to need one of those bedrooms very soon, but before she could crash, she had to get a better sense of what was going on here. Trying to gather her thoughts, she sat down on one of the couches (unconsciously arranging her tail with the ease of long practice).
Kaban sat down on the loveseat opposite, and the awkward silence resumed for a few more seconds. Then, just as they both opened their mouths to speak, Blackie's voice rang out, a bit muffled, from behind the closed bathroom door:
"These come off?!!"
Goji blinked, her train of thought derailed again, and angled her eyes at the door; then she and Kaban made a moment's bemused eye contact, and both of them started to giggle.
Once they'd come down from their fits of giggles, the two looked at each other in a less awkward silence for a moment.
"I have a lot of questions," Goji said.
Kaban nodded. "So do I," she agreed.
"But I'm too tired to ask them right now," Goji went on.
Kaban nodded. "So am I," she agreed.
"So... why don't we talk about it tomorrow, while we're on the way to wherever you're taking the gizmo? I know..." She hesitated, picking words, then continued, "I know after what you guys saw tonight, it must be pretty weird having me around, but I'd like to help you with it however I can. Especially since it's my fault the other one got wrecked."
"I..." Kaban paused, blushing slightly, then said, "Well, I won't say it's not weird, but... it's not too weird," she went on with a slightly wry smile. "Serval and I are pretty used to things getting weird. And I'd certainly like to have your help. I think we're going to need a lot of it if we're going to succeed."
"OK. Good." Goji yawned hugely, all her sharp triangular teeth on full display, then said, "Right now, I need sleep."
Before Kaban could reply, the hallway door opened and the Lucky Beast returned, bearing a large basket of Japari Buns on its head. "Apologies for the wait, Chief Kaban. Dinner is served."
"After food," Goji corrected herself, and they both laughed again.
They each had a bun. Kaban guessed from Goji's reaction that she'd never had one before, or at least couldn't remember it if she had, because she seemed surprised and made another of those cryptic remarks ("It's like if they did curry meat buns at The Baozi Experts! I'll have to suggest that the next time I'm there, this is great"). Then, excusing herself after another enormous yawn, she went off to one of the bedrooms and shut the door.
Kaban left the rest of the buns for Serval and the rats (noting as she did so that, if nobody got greedy, they ought to have enough left for breakfast in the morning) and selected another of the bedrooms for herself. Removing her backpack, pith helmet, and boots, she lay down and shut off the light, secure in the knowledge that Serval would be able to find her, whichever room she picked.
She was mostly asleep when the bed shook slightly, rousing her, and Serval's familiar weight settled half-beside, half-atop her. She was warm and smelled slightly of fruit, fresh from the bath, and Kaban smiled sleepily in the dark; it was the aroma of the standard soap to be found in all the Park's bath facilities they had yet encountered, and brought back pleasant memories of the Kyōshū Mountain Area hot springs.
"That was hilarious," Serval murmured quietly. "They'd never seen running water indoors before. Blackie thought I was trying to drown her. Was I ever that clueless?"
"Mm-hmm," Kaban replied.
"Rude," Serval said, but she still sounded amused.
"No more than I was, though," Kaban qualified. "I didn't even have a name."
"Lucky for you, you ran into the friendliest cat in the Savannah," Serval said, then reached across Kaban and took her free hand, as was her custom. "Raaar. Got you."
"Please don't eat me."
Goji woke an indeterminate time later with the kind of heavy head that always followed a full-strength post-battle crash. She wished, not for the first time, that someone could construct a wristwatch that would survive her... unique lifestyle. This room didn't have any windows, so she couldn't tell if she'd been out for six hours or sixteen.
Yawning, she uncurled herself, raising her head from where she'd rested it on the last third or so of her own tail, and clambered out of bed. The living room was deserted and the clock on the wall said it was 4:30 AM local time. She couldn't remember exactly when she'd gone to bed, but it hadn't been that long after dark, so maybe nine o'clock? Not the most epic crash she'd ever pulled, then.
In the basket on the coffee table, three more of the Japari Buns were gone. Goji considered bagging another one herself, but decided to leave it for later and went into the bathroom. She didn't really need a bath; one of the weird side effects of the supercharge she'd pulled on the local Energon was that all the grunge from the battle had sort of burned off. Even her clothes seemed to have... well, basically grown back, which was strange, but convenient. All the same, she had always been a believer in the therapeutic power of hot water.
She had to settle for a shower, which was par for the course in facilities scaled for normal people without ten-foot tails, but she still felt refreshed as she went back to the bedroom she'd staked out. She wasn't sure what to do while she waited for the others to wake up and start their day. Get some more sleep, she supposed.
She was climbing back into bed to make good on that idea when she noticed what looked like a magazine sitting on the bedside table. Something about it aroused her curiosity; she sat up, switching on the lamp, and picked it up.
Upon closer inspection, it wasn't a magazine at all, but a marketing brochure for Japari Park. Someone had evidently expected the person staying in this room to be a prospective investor, and so had left this document—part sales flyer, part prospectus—for the visitor's information and enticement.
Goji was about to dismiss this as uninteresting, put it back, and go back to sleep when she found herself looking at a full-page photograph of someone who looked very much like Serval.
Meet your new Friends! said a cheerful headline, and below that, a block of text:
An exciting new development in exobiology has taken place at Japari Park, and soon we will unveil its fascinating result to the galaxy!
The person you see on this page is not a human being. Until just a short while ago, she was an ordinary serval (Leptailurus serval): a small wild cat native to the African grasslands of Earth, one of the many species of Earth wildlife transplanted to this world in the 21st century as part of the failed Natureworld experiment. Like all such animals, normal servals are not sophonts—but this one is! She possesses intelligence comparable to that of an adolescent human and speaks both Neo-Japanese and Anglo-Standard fluently.
How is this possible, you ask? Have the zoologists and researchers of the Japari Consortium branched out into the ethically thorny field of biosculpt-enabled uplift? Hardly! What you are seeing here is the result of a natural phenomenon unique to the environment here in Japari Park! Serval here is an example of an entirely new class of beings we've named Friends, and we believe that our new Friends have a very exciting future ahead of them—a future you could be a part of!
A Friend is born when an ordinary animal is exposed to
The text reached the bottom of the page and cut off there. All thoughts of sleep banished, Goji turned the page and kept reading, straight through the entire booklet. When she finished, she read it again, then sat on the edge of her bed regarding it in silence until she heard the sound of movement out in the living room.
I know some people who definitely need to see this, she thought, and tucked the booklet away.
The backup Mark II unit required two cases, each about the size of the one the original unit had taken up. By mid-morning, they had them aboard the old ferryboat and secured on deck. As for the boat itself, it was old and rusty, and most of the instruments in the wheelhouse weren't working, but the hull was still seaworthy and the engines started up under only minor protest. They were idling smoothly as Norway and Blackie said their goodbyes at the dock.
"Seems like we've been here before," Norway remarked. "Hopefully there isn't another sea monster waiting for you guys to try and leave again."
"My contract was only for one, so if another shows up, you're on your own," Goji quipped. When that elicited no response other than a round of skeptical looks, she added lamely, "... That was a joke."
"Anyway," said Blackie after a moment. "Good luck out there."
"You two take care of yourselves," Serval said. "If you ever get lonely in this place, you'd always be welcome in Kyōshū."
"We'll keep it in mind," Norway said.
"Chief Kaban, do you believe you are sufficiently familiar with the operation of the vehicle?" asked Lucky Beast.
Kaban nodded. "I think I've got it. Thanks for all your help."
"It is my job," the robot replied, inclining its body. "I will assist you in casting off. Safe travels."
The boat chugged away from the pier with Kaban at the helm, while Serval and Goji stood at the after rail and waved until they could no longer make out figures on shore.
It was a relatively short run from Renraku City to Kyōshū, with only about half an hour out of sight of land on either end at the ferry's leisurely cruising speed. They had just sunk the mainland behind them when Goji put her head into the wheelhouse and said,
"We've got company. Something small and reasonably fast-flying, coming from the south."
Kaban ducked her head slightly to get a better angle for looking up through the wheelhouse windows, then frowned. "I can't see anything."
"You wouldn't be able to yet," Goji told her. "I have... kind of a sense for flying things. Just keep your eyes open. Whatever it is should be in sight soon."
"Bird Friend spotted~!" Serval sang out from up on the wheelhouse roof. "It looks like Rock Pigeon. Wow, she's a long way from home."
Kaban made sure the helm was locked, then went aft with Serval and Goji to greet their visitor, who waved and circled down to land on the broad expanse of weather deck abaft the wheelhouse.
Never having seen a Friend whose base animal was a bird before, Goji had been expecting her to have wings on her back, like a Thanagarian, or possibly feathered arms like a harpy. Instead, she was slightly nonplussed to see that the girl—who did, it had to be admitted, resemble a human rock pigeon, grey sweater vest, iridescent scarf, pink sneakers and all—had only small wings on her head, no bigger than the ones that a regular pigeon would sport.
"Laws of physics? I threw those away for you," she muttered. "It's like being back in the Spirit World."
"Pardon?" asked Serval.
"Nothing, never mind," Goji replied, shaking her head.
Order: Columbiformes | Family: Columbidae | Genus: Columba
"Greetings, travelers," said Rock Pigeon cheerfully, bowing first to Kaban, then Serval, then drawing back slightly in surprise at the sight of Goji. "Oh my! A new Friend? Hello! I'm Rock Pigeon, or sometimes people call me Dove. I hope we can have a peaceful time together."
"Uh, hi," said Goji, a little awkwardly. "I'm... you can call me Goji. And peaceful sounds good," she added with a little smile.
"Professor Konoha sent me to find out what that amazing noise last night was," Rock Pigeon explained to Kaban. "She assumed you must have had something to do with it, since she knew you were in the area."
"It's, uh... kind of a long story," Kaban said, putting a sheepish hand behind her head. "And not really important right now. I hate to turn you right around and send you away again, but can I ask you to take a message back to the Professor for me, please, and a couple of other people?"
"Sure, no problem," Rock Pigeon replied. "It's what I do!"
Kaban outlined her needs as succinctly as possible. The avian Friend jotted a few notes in a little notebook she wore strapped to her wrist, then said her goodbyes, spread her improbably small wings, and took to the sky again, circling the boat once and speeding off to the south.
"I'm impressed by her sense of direction," Goji mused as she watched Rock Pigeon fly away, making an unerring beeline to the south.
"Well, she is a homing pigeon," Kaban pointed out.
"It was nice of the Professor to send someone to check on us," Serval noted.
"Mm," Kaban agreed. "I should have asked the An'in Lucky Beast to send her another message last night, but after all the excitement, I forgot all about it."
They pulled up to the northern Kyōshū dock a bit past noon, judging by the sun's position, and found four figures waiting for them on the pier. Two of them were the unmistakable figures of the Professor and Mimi, near-identical but for their colors. Standing at the forward rail, Serval recognized the other two as the people Kaban had asked Rock Pigeon to find. She wasn't sure why Kaban asked for those two, specifically, but she was looking forward to finding out.
Kaban shut down the ferry's engines a short way from the dock, letting the boat's momentum bleed off as it coasted the rest of the way in, and they bumped up alongside without too much of a jolt. Serval and Goji jumped down and got busy making the mooring ropes fast; Kaban made certain everything was properly turned off and squared away, then followed them down to the pier.
"Everyone," she said, spreading her hands. "I'm so glad Rock Pigeon was able to find you all so quickly. It'll save us a lot of time, and we don't have that much left."
"Kaban. Welcome back," said the Professor.
"Indeed, welcome," Mimi concurred.
"Greetings, Kaban," said the device strapped to the Professor's wrist, and Goji was intrigued to note that, in addition to sounding just like the little service robots she'd seen back in the city, it looked a lot like the gadget she'd noticed on the front of each one. "It has been 76 days since you were last in the Kyōshū Region. Welcome back."
"Lucky!" said Kaban, a delighted smile breaking out on her face in spite of the seriousness of the occasion. She went forward to accept the device from the Professor, securing it on her own right wrist. "It's good to be home. Is everything all right?"
"I am pleased to report that normal operations have continued uninterrupted in your absence," Lucky replied.
"Hello, Serval, how was your trip? Oh, just great, Boss—I didn't run out of rations and have to eat Kaban to survive or anything!" said Serval sarcastically.
"Serval, do not eat Kaban," said Lucky, and both Serval and Kaban laughed. Goji got the impression of an inside joke of long standing, which made her smile slightly, even though she didn't get it.
"Have you found something?" the Professor asked, brushing straight past all the social nonsense.
Kaban took no offense. "Yes—but we still have a lot of work to do." She nodded toward the boat. "Let's go aboard and I'll explain. Oh—right, introductions first. Everyone, this is Goji-chan. Serval and I met her in Renraku City."
The Professor drew back, her largely expressionless face showing as much surprise as it could show.
"Renraku City!" she blurted.
"You found it?" Mimi asked.
Serval nodded, grinning. "Yup! And then we kind of, um, broke it," she admitted, her smile turning a little awkward. "But that wasn't really our fault, and it was pretty messed up when we got there... anyway."
The Professor, recovering her aplomb, ignored Serval's digression with faintly magnificent indifference, instead turning to Goji and saying, "Greetings, new Friend. I am Professor Northern White-Faced Owl, wise above all."
"And I am her Assistant, Eurasian Eagle Owl," Mimi added.
"We are the chiefs of this village," the Professor declared.
"For we are wise," Mimi explained.
What is it about owls and ego? Goji wondered, thinking of a certain spirit librarian, but she kept her face neutral as she gave them a polite bow.
A short way away, a slim girl slouching in the depths of a two-tone brown-striped hoodie snorted. "Don't you two ever give it a rest with that?" she asked.
Order: Squamata | Family: Paraviperidae | Genus: Cryptogloydius
"This is Tsuchinoko," Mimi explained.
"She is a Friend who is an animal Science has never accepted as real," said the Professor.
"We can only speculate that this is responsible for her ill-tempered nature," mused Mimi.
"Oi!" Tsuchinoko objected.
Order: Sphenisciformes | Family: Spheniscidae | Genus: Eudyptes
"Yo!" said the black-and-white-clad figure next to Tsuchinoko with a cheery wave. "Southern Rockhopper Penguin here! You can just call me Iwabi, it's easier."
"Goji-chan, huh?" said Tsuchinoko, ambling over to peer more closely at Goji. She was wearing geta, which reminded Goji pleasantly of home, although she noticed that Tsuchinoko's were much stranger than the ones her father often wore; they had only one tall "tooth" apiece, more like short stilts than sandals. Goji wondered how the girl managed to walk in them without breaking an ankle—and make it look so easy.
In the shadow of her raised hood, Tsuchinoko's eyes glowed an eerie cyan, close to the color of the short, messy hair peeking around the edges. She regarded Goji closely for just long enough to make her start feeling slightly uncomfortable, then stepped back out of her space and said,
"Hmm. I always thought the Legendary Beasts were a myth." She shrugged, hands still in her hoodie pockets. "Then again, people say the same about me, as Her Owly Majesty so tactfully points out."
Before Goji had a chance to formulate a response, Mimi cut in sharply, "Tsuchinoko, this is really not the time for your absurd theories about the World Before."
Tsuchinoko sighed. "You see what I have to work with," she said sourly. Then, shrugging, she retired to stand by Iwabi again. "She does have a point, though. Let's cut to the chase: What did you find, Kaban, and why did you ask for Iwabi and me?"
"Yeah, I'm kinda wondering about that myself," Iwabi admitted. "I mean, I can see why you would want Tsuchi involved if something weird is going down, but I'm at a loss as to why you need a member of an idol unit."
Kaban nodded. "Come aboard," she said, "and I'll explain everything."
Once they were all up on the ferryboat's weather deck, seated around a folding table Serval found down in the cabin, it took Kaban half an hour to make everything as clear as she could to her audience: the unfolding crisis, which the Professor and Mimi had so far kept secret from everyone else in the Kyōshū Region; Admin-Istra and Renraku City; the Nutrition Lab; the Mark II food preparation machine; the terrifying appearance of the monster calling itself Rampage, its destruction of the Mark II, and Goji defeating it (with the exact details of how that was accomplished glossed over); and, finally, their departure from the city with the parts of the Mark II prototype.
"According to the An'in Region's Lucky Beasts," Kaban finished, "the managers of the Park intended to set the Mark II up here in Kyōshū, replacing part of the existing system. That means we need to take it to the food preparation area. Iwabi, I know you and the rest of PPP went there, years ago... do you think you could find it again?"
"Hmm... yeah, I think so," Iwabi said. "I gotta tell you, though, we barely got out of there with our tailfeathers intact. The Bosses do not like Friends messing around with the food supply."
"Hopefully, Lucky and I will be able to convince them that we're supposed to be there," said Kaban, the fingertips of her left hand unconsciously touching the Lucky Beast module she wore on her right wrist.
"Now that you have been logged as Chief Ranger of the Park, that should present no difficulties, Kaban," Lucky said. "All Lucky Beasts will recognize your authority."
The Professor blinked. "Chief Ranger?"
"How did you accomplish that?" Mimi wondered.
Kaban shrugged a little sheepishly. "I really don't know. When I introduced myself to the Lucky Beast we met in the Administration Special Area, he checked my ID against the Kyōshū Region's personnel system and found the record Lucky entered for me there. He said something about resolving a mismatch, and then started calling me Chief."
"You are the only Ranger in Japari Park," Lucky pointed out. "Logically, once registered with the central administration system, that would make you the highest-ranking one."
"Ha!" said Tsuchinoko with a sly little grin. "Sometimes I love how dumb the Ancients' smart machines were. No offense, Lucky."
"How come she can get an answer out of you without threatening Kaban?!" Serval demanded.
When Lucky did not reply, Mimi speculated blandly, "Perhaps he simply dislikes you, Serval."
"That's not it!" Serval insisted, arms folded.
Iwabi put up a hand, like a student in class. "Um... can we maybe focus on the not-starving part? I'm still sort of freaking out about that, to be honest."
"Yes. Sorry," said Kaban, as apologetic as if the digression had been her fault. "We still have a big problem. The machine we found was powered by a giant Sandstar crystal, the biggest I've ever seen outside the Great Mountain. Not only big, there was something... something special about it. But when Rampage, um... happened... it was destroyed. If we're going to get this one working," she went on, patting the case beside her, "we have to hope there's another one... and that we can find it."
"I begin to understand why you got me involved," Tsuchinoko mused.
Kaban nodded. "You know more about the Park's mysteries than anyone," she said. "Even the Professor and Mimi—no offense—haven't studied the Ancients like you have."
"We prefer to confine ourselves to verifiable facts," the Professor said stuffily.
"Indeed, we do," Mimi agreed, then softened very slightly and continued, "However, in this instance..."
"And this instance only..." the Professor allowed.
"We must acknowledge that you are correct," Mimi finished, and both owls turned attentive stares to Tsuchinoko.
The cryptid Friend blanched slightly as their undivided attention, conveyed with their enormous, unblinking orange eyes, grated against her natural preference for being unobserved. For a second, Kaban thought she might overturn the table and hide behind it. Then she got hold of herself with a visible effort of will, turned to face Kaban so she wouldn't have to see the owls' intense scrutiny, and cleared her throat, torn between self-importance and social terror.
"What else can you tell me about this special Sandstar crystal?" she asked.
"It was huge!" Serval said, gesturing with her hands to estimate its size. "Bigger than your head with your hood up. Maybe even bigger than African Elephant's ears."
"A perfect cube," Kaban added, her face thoughtful as she dredged her memory for details she might not have consciously registered at the time. "Smooth as glass on all six sides, like someone had made it that way and polished it. But... there was something else. I only saw it outside the machine for a moment, and it was a long way away, but..." She frowned, rubbing her forehead in frustration. "I can't put it into words."
Kaban blinked, surprised out of her brain-racking, as Goji suddenly moved, heading around the Professor and Mimi and up to the wheelhouse.
"Goji-chan?" she wondered.
"Give me a second," Goji replied. "I have to see if—aha, here we go."
She came back a moment later with the boat's logbook and a pencil. Laying the former down on the table, she opened it to the blank pages at the back, then took the pencil and, with the tip of her tongue wedged in the corner of her mouth, started sketching.
With quick little strokes of her pencil, the picture took shape: a cube, drawn in pseudo-three-dimensional perspective. Then, once the outline was complete, she drew a second cube with lighter strokes, nestled within the first and connected at the corners.
"Like that," she said. "It's a tesseract. A four-dimensional cube." Seeing that her audience didn't get it, she drew four simpler forms in the space around the hypercube, naming them as she went: "Zero dimensions, point; one dimension, line; two dimensions, square; three dimensions, cube; four dimensions, tesseract."
Iwabi scratched her head. "OK, I'm lost."
Tsuchinoko sat forward and flopped back her hood, revealing that her eyes were actually grey in daylight, and stared at the sketches for a long few seconds, her lips moving as if forming unvocalized words.
"... So that's what it's called," she murmured after a few more seconds' reverie.
"But I guess Tsuchi isn't?" said Iwabi, sounding more puzzled than ever.
"Have you seen one before, Tsuchinoko?" Kaban asked gently.
Tsuchinoko tore her eyes away from the diagrams and turned them, looking troubled, to Kaban. "I have," she said. "A long time ago. I'd almost forgotten about it. Not long after I first changed, I explored the caves under the Great Sandstar Mountain." She ignored the two owls' simultaneous sharp intakes of breath—Sandstar Mountain was holy ground, where trespassing by Friends was forbidden—and went on before they could chide her, "I saw something like that in one of them."
"Can you take us there?" Serval wondered.
Tsuchinoko closed her eyes for a moment, collecting herself. Then, looking Kaban in the eye, she said matter-of-factly, "I would rather do almost anything else... but yes, I can." Then, regaining a little of her customary nonchalance, she nodded toward Goji and asked, "How's your big friend at fighting Ceruleans? Because we're going to find a lot of them down there. They spawn in those caves, you know. Or whatever Ceruleans do to make more Ceruleans."
"I don't know about Ceruleans, specifically," Goji said, "but I reckon I'm pretty handy in a fight."
"You'll need to be," Tsuchinoko told her.
"Iwabi, you don't have to come along for this part if you don't want to," Kaban said. "We just need you to guide us to the food prep area once we have the Sandstar."
Iwabi shook her head. "Nah, I'm in. What kind of idol would I be if I let you guys do all the heavy lifting and only showed up at the end? Besides, I'd rather be doing something than waiting around for you to come back."
Kaban smiled. "We'll be glad to have you," she said.
"Yeah, more backup is always more good," Tsuchinoko agreed.
"Well, then." Kaban sat gathering her thoughts for a moment, then turned to the Professor and said, "I guess we have a way forward."
We returned to the Kyōshū Region today, using the old ferryboat Black Rat found for us in Renraku City. An'in was interesting, and would be worth another look, but it's good to be back on home ground.
We met with the Professor and Mimi-chan as soon as we got back. Thanks to Rock Pigeon, Tsuchinoko and Iwabi were there too. Between them, we think we know where we need to go.
The Professor wasn't happy about giving us permission to go into two of the most restricted areas in the region, and we're not very happy to be going, either, but we have no choice. We have to go into Sandstar Mountain to find the special crystal we need to power the food machine, and we have to set it up where its original builders intended once we do, or this will all have been for nothing.
I'm just lucky I have such amazing friends. If Tsuchinoko weren't so inquisitive, and didn't have such a good memory, I wouldn't have a clue where to look for another of those special Sandstar crystals. And for Iwabi to be willing to walk away from her busy life as an idol and help us take the machine to a far-off, dangerous place is more than I could ever have asked for. And we'll have Goji-chan to help us.
I'm still processing what she told me this afternoon. On the boat ride back from An'in, she came up to the wheelhouse while Serval was below having a nap, and we talked for an hour or so. I explained, as best I can, about how we live in Japari Park—what the Lucky Beasts do for us, how we (kind of) govern ourselves, the state of our technology (such as it is). And she told me...
I almost feel stupid writing this down, for some reason...
She told me she's from another world. That there are thousands of worlds out there with people on them, and billions of those people are humans. She came to this planet hunting the monster she killed yesterday, and the people she works for didn't know there was anyone here. They thought there were only animals left. I guess if not for the Sandstar, they would have been right.
I'm not sure what we're going to do about that. She'll have to report what she found here to her superiors when she goes back, and what happens after that depends on them. It worries me, because I don't think Japari Park is ready for people from outside to come back.
She showed me a book she found in her room back in the Nutrition Lab, something the people who once ran the Park wrote to tell outsiders about us Friends. I didn't understand all of it, but what I could understand worried me. I can't point to any specific reason why, but I didn't come away feeling like the people who wrote that book really had what was best for their era's Friends at heart.
I'm doing what I'm doing now to preserve what Professor Konoha called the peaceful dream of the Park, and I don't know if that dream could survive the return of people like that.
Serval would say I'm borrowing trouble. Thinking too hard about what could go wrong, like Beaver-chan. Maybe I am. I got a good night's sleep last night, but I'm still tired. I've been going nonstop for more than two months, and I still have a lot of work to do before I can take a break. But that isn't really an excuse. Serval's been right beside me every step of the way, and she's still her usual self.
We're leaving in the morning to get started on the next phase of the expedition—Goji-chan, Iwabi, Tsuchinoko, Serval and me. Bound for Sandstar Mountain by way of the Plains Area. I hope Tsuchinoko can find the cave she saw that crystal in, years ago, and that it's still there.
And after it's all done... then I'll worry about what happens next.
The expedition party's first order of business was to put the Mark II prototype someplace secure, where it could be looked after by someone trusted and kept safe until the time came to take it to its final destination. Since the natural jumping-off point for the trek to the food preparation area was the Plains Area, the logical choice for that secure location was Lion's castle—which was how, two days' careful driving later, the five found themselves explaining their mission to the mistress of that grand edifice.
Order: Carnivora | Family: Felidae | Genus: Panthera
Lion sat cross-legged on the floor of her audience chamber and listened to their explanation in silence, her expressionless face half in shadow and golden eyes fixed thoughtfully on Kaban's face. Even having known Lion for as long as she had, Kaban couldn't help but find that look slightly intimidating, and she had to work to keep her voice from reflexively quavering as she laid out the situation.
When she'd finished, Lion gazed silently at her for several seconds, the restless swishing of the black-tufted tip of her tail on the polished wood floor her only movement.
"So," she said, her voice a deep, vaguely menacing half-purr, half-growl. "You want me to keep these boxes here in my castle, guard them around the clock, and make sure nothing... Cerulean... happens to them."
Kaban nodded. "That's right."
Lion frowned. "That sounds like a lot of work."
"I know," Kaban agreed.
"It could even be dangerous, if the Ceruleans do come after them."
"That's true," Kaban acknowledged. "I don't think it's likely that they know, or even would care, what we're doing... but I can't completely rule it out."
"Well. If they do..." Lion smiled, her tongue flicking over the sharp point of one canine tooth, and added with a dark air of satisfaction that sent a shiver of apprehension down the spines of her audience, "Let them come."
Then, stretching until her back cracked, she flopped down on the floor and said in her normal (much higher-pitched, bubbly) voice, "Sounds like fun!" Rolling over, she scratched at the dark wooden beam running across the floor with her fingernails and added, "We haven't been getting a lot of action around here lately. My crew's getting soft!"
"As is mine!" bellowed the tall, burly figure who towered behind her, feet planted belligerently, arms folded. Grinning cheerfully, she added, "A little guard duty is just what my girls need to sharpen them up!"
Order: Artiodactyla | Family: Cervidae | Genus: Alces
"Thank you both," Kaban said, performing a seated bow. "Please try to keep the reason for this as quiet as you can. We don't want the word to get out. The Professor is very concerned that there might be panic."
"Roger that!" Lion agreed. "Not a word out of me. I'll just tell them it's a new game you came up with."
"You can rely on my discretion!" Moose declared, in a voice that Kaban, wincing, fancied could easily have been heard in the Jungle Area.
"Are you sure those two are going to be OK?" Iwabi wondered as the five left the castle and headed back to their expeditionary vehicle.
"It'll be fine," Kaban said, trying to sound reassuring. "General Moose is..."
"Not the sharpest thorn on the bush," Serval supplied.
"... but she's very reliable," Kaban went on. "She made us a promise and she'll keep it."
"Lion's got quite a 'psycho killer' routine," Goji observed as she climbed into the back of the Japari Bus (the only entrance she could easily fit through). "She even had me fooled for a second there. I'm-a have to steal that thing she did with her voice."
They passed a pleasant couple of days making their way southward through the Forest Area, around the lake, and through the bypass tunnel under the Desert Area, camping each night by the side of the road. After the first day out of the northern port, they hadn't discussed their mission in camp; they'd gone over everything that needed to be gone over, and all had tacitly agreed that there was nothing to be gained by dwelling further on the matter before they reached Sandstar Mountain.
Instead, they spent the time before turning in telling Goji stories of Japari Park, continuing the education Kaban had begun on the boat journey over from An'in, or listening to her own tales of the strange otherworld she came from. Kaban, listening to these tales and watching the others' reactions to them, wondered whether they really understood the implications of Goji being not just an unknown kind of Friend, but a creature from another world. After mulling it over, she decided that Tsuchinoko probably did, for all that the cryptid kept her thoughts on the matter mostly to herself, and if Serval and Iwabi didn't, that was mostly a question of perspective.
On day six of what Kaban had mentally dubbed Phase Two of the Food Emergency Expedition, they passed through the Jungle Area. The weather was rainy and unseasonably cool, the canopy overhead shrouded in low-hanging cloud, much to Serval's disappointment.
Standing behind the driver's seat and gazing glumly out through the rain-streaked windshield, she complained into the tour guide's PA mic, "I was looking forward to pointing out all the Friends who live in this area, but there's nobody around. This weather must be keeping them in their dens."
"Mm," Kaban said, a little distractedly, guiding the bus onto a narrow bridge over one of the Jungle Area's many small streams.
"Good thing we decided to use the bigger-model bus," Serval observed. "You'd be getting pretty wet right now if we'd used our old one."
"That's true," Kaban agreed. Then, wincing as a fender scraped the bridge's wooden handrail, she added, "These little bridges wouldn't be quite so tight, though."
"Pretty sure that was the last one, anyway," said Serval.
"I think you're right."
"You guys must know every place in the Park by now, don't you?" Iwabi asked.
"Only here on the island," Kaban said. "We haven't explored anywhere near as much of the other Regions."
Serval pointed. "There's the signpost clearing where we first met Lucky," she said. "The Savannah Area border is just around that bend."
"Let's hope there's no Cerulean blocking the gate this time," Kaban said wryly.
She guided the bus around the corner, and Goji found herself repeating one of the oddest and most interesting experiences she'd had in Japari Park: the unnaturally sharp boundaries between the biomes here on Kyōshū Island. On one side of the tall, archway-like gate spanning the trail ahead of them, it was raining and foggy; but they passed through into bright, hot sunlight, like coming out of a tunnel.
"I'll never get used to that," she mused.
"It's because of the Sandstar," Serval explained. Then, adopting an officious impression of a tour guide, she went on, "Speaking of which, if you'll look out the right side of the Japari Bus, you'll see one of the most amazing sights on offer here in the Park: the Great Sandstar Mountain."
On cue, Kaban halted the bus at the top of the ridge leading down into the Savannah Area proper. There, spread out before them like a giant bowl, the light-brown, grassy lowland stretched off to the horizon, studded here and there with giant trees... and beyond it, a mountain Goji instantly recognized as a volcano. An almost perfectly symmetrical cinder cone, rising from the grassland like a sentinel, it was made all the more dramatic by the fact that it had no foothills to speak of surrounding it—but that was quite overshadowed by what she saw at the top.
"Oh... Spirits," Goji murmured, staring in amazement.
Sprouting from the top of the volcano was a huge, several-branched crystalline structure, like a postmodernist sculpture of a tree made up of various-sized glass cubes. If her eye gauged the size of the mountain anywhere close to correctly, the largest of them must have been the size of houses, if not small office buildings... and all surrounded by a haze of shifting rainbow light. It was the biggest formation of natural Energon crystals she'd ever seen in her life; even this far away from it, she fancied she could feel its power tugging at all the cells of her body, calling to her very genes.
"If I didn't know better," she said at length, "I would swear that mountain came straight out of the Spirit World."
"Maybe it did," Tsuchinoko responded, and then, to the startled glance that remark drew, "You don't think something like that happened naturally in a place like this, do you?" She shook her head. "The owls get really annoyed when I bring this up, but I've always been convinced the Sandstar didn't just happen. Somebody put it there. For what purpose, I don't know. But it's got to be on purpose."
They all considered this in silence as Kaban guided the bus slowly down the ridge. The road had a couple of bends in it that were tricky for the larger-size Japari Bus, and it was with some sense of relief that they reached the watering hole halfway down, where the way smoothed out and widened a bit.
"Why, hello!" called a voice from the pond, and Kaban pulled the bus to a halt, opening the side door on her right.
Standing waist-deep in the pond was a tall, generously proportioned woman in what appeared to be a black diving suit, her red-highlighted black hair somehow maintaining a complex style despite being dripping wet.
Order: Artiodactyla | Family: Hippopotamidae | Genus: Hippopotamus
"Hippo!" cried Serval, leaning into the doorway to wave. "How goes?"
"Oh, you know, not much changes around here," Hippo replied pleasantly. "Where are you off to?"
"Just patrolling the Savannah," Serval said.
"It's been a while since I saw you two in these parts," said Hippo, and then, with a mischievous smile, "In fact, word is you haven't been seen anywhere in the Region for a couple of months now. Some sort of secret mission for the owls, I assume?"
"Uh, well," said Kaban, reddening, and Hippo laughed.
"That's all the confirmation I need," she said, "but don't worry. I'm not the gossiping type, you know. Good luck with whatever you're up to! Stay safe! Word is the Ceruleans are out in force lately, especially near the Mountain."
"OK, thanks for the tip!" Serval called. "Seeya later!"
"Not the gossiping type," Tsuchinoko said with dark amusement as the bus pulled away from the watering hole. "She'll tell the next person who stops by the watering hole all about it. Everybody in the Savannah Area will know something's up by nightfall."
"Well, we knew we couldn't keep the problem secret forever," Kaban said philosophically.
"All the more reason to hurry up and get it fixed," Iwabi declared. "We don't have long before the supplies start running out anyway, and everybody's going to know about it when that happens."
By midafternoon, they were out of the canyons and trundling across the open expanse of the Savannah proper, and for all that she'd been glad of its protection in the Jungle, Kaban was starting to regret the Japari Bus's windshield a bit. The sides of the bus were open in back, but up here, with only the little vents in the dashboard for cooling, it was starting to get a bit stuffy.
She glanced in her rearview mirror to see how her passengers were doing. Serval was up in the roof cupola, taking the opportunity to get her first good long look at her old home turf in quite a while. Tsuchinoko had stretched out on one of the seats with the sunshine falling across her, basking. Goji was at the back, where there'd be room for her tail, still gazing out across the grassland at the Sandstar Mountain. And Iwabi... appeared to be melting, despite having moved to the shadiest corner of the bus.
"It's so hot here," the penguin moaned, fanning herself ineffectually with one flipper-gloved hand. "How do you stand it, Serval?"
Serval ducked down out of the cupola to give her a puzzled look. "Huh? This is a nice day in the Savannah."
"Heck, it's cold by my standards," Tsuchinoko observed languidly. "And it'll get colder once we're down in the caves." She sat up, tucking her bare legs Indian-fashion under her on the seat, and regarded Iwabi's outfit thoughtfully for a moment, then added, "Anyway, have you considered taking off the wetsuit? I'm just putting it out there."
Iwabi blinked, gathering the front of her hoodie protectively in one hand. "What?! I don't have anything else to wear!"
Tsuchinoko sighed and called forward, "Kaban, do that magic human thing and make the poor penguin some cooler clothes."
"I'm... not sure you understand how that works," Kaban replied, a little awkwardly.
In the back, Goji stifled a giggle, reflecting that it was sometimes hard work not laughing out loud at this impromptu comedy troupe when they got going.
"Although, actually..." Kaban said a few moments later, a thoughtful note in her voice. A few moments later, the bus turned off the road and halted.
"Let's stop here for a second," said Kaban, and with a cheerful smile, she opened the bus door and climbed out.
The others got down behind her, to find themselves standing in front of one of the Savannah Area's tiny handful of buildings. Once upon a time, when Japari Park was a going concern, it had been the area's sole waystation for the bus tours, a place for Park visitors to stop off, use a bathroom, and rehydrate, as well as...
"What's a gift shop?" Iwabi wondered, gazing up at the brightly colored sign above the entrance.
"In the old days, it was a place where Park guests could buy stuff to commemorate their visit," Tsuchinoko told her. Serval and Kaban shared a private little smile, which Goji noticed, but didn't have any context for.
"Oh, there's one of those near our stage, up north," Iwabi said. "Emperor found it one day a while back. They had little stuffed versions of all of us before we were Friends."
Tsuchinoko nodded. "This place will probably have the same kind of thing, but for Savannah animals. If it hasn't been looted by now."
"I don't think anybody ever comes here," Serval said. "Most Savannah Friends aren't really interested in buildings. I mean, I never cared about them until I met Kaban."
"This facility's security system is still operational," Lucky announced from Kaban's wrist. "I will unlock the door."
The inside of the low timber building was dark and stuffy, but the former, at least, was quickly dispelled as long-dormant lights flickered on at Lucky's wireless command. The lights revealed a long, narrow room with a counter at one end, its walls lined with dusty shelves full of mysterious objects. With exclamations of surprise and wonder, the Friends fanned out to investigate.
"Drinking cups," Goji mused, wiping the dust from one such object.
"Found the stuffed animals!" Serval declared from one of the shelves at the back.
"What's this thing?" Iwabi wondered, standing before an odd rectangular object on the counter. She poked experimentally at one of the several levers sticking out of its face, and jumped back in surprise as a bell rang and a drawer suddenly sprang out of the bottom of the device.
"Wow!" Tsuchinoko cried, startling her again with the loudest sound she'd ever heard the usually retiring cryptid make. Pushing her way past the bewildered penguin, Tsuchinoko delved into the drawer with both hands and came out clutching a double fistful of little metal discs, a couple of which slipped between her fingers and bounced, clinking, on the counter.
"It's full of Japari Coins!" Tsuchinoko crowed, holding her prize aloft. "I've never seen more than one or two of them at a time. This thing must have forty or fifty in it!" Cackling with glee, she started scooping the coins out and stuffing them into the pouch pocket on the front of her hoodie.
"... OK?" said Iwabi, flummoxed.
"And here I thought tsuchinoko were only greedy for booze," said Goji, amused.
"That's racist?" Tsuchinoko said absently, continuing to plunder the cash register.
"Aha!" Kaban said from somewhere out behind the counter. "Here we are!"
"So much better," Iwabi declared blissfully, lolling on one of the Japari Bus's front seats. Her insulated, full-sleeved swimsuit lay like a discarded skin on the seat beside her, and she sprawled out, luxuriating in the feel of the breeze blowing around inside the baggy T-shirt she'd replaced it with.
"Stylish," Goji remarked, looking down at her own. It was emblazoned across the front with a symbol she'd seen again and again since arriving in Japari Park: a cheerful orange の, the Japanese hiragana character for no, stylized with a pair of little "horns" on top.
"That was fun!" Serval said, modeling hers. "I never knew that place had so much neat stuff in it."
"OK, I was actually kidding about the 'magic human' thing?" Tsuchinoko said, considering the logo on the one she was wearing. "But... wow."
"Never bet against Kaban-chan!" said Serval smugly.
"I was lucky," said Kaban modestly. "Tsuchinoko happened to mention it at just the right time." She nodded toward the sun, dipping orange toward the western horizon, and went on, "We should find a spot to make camp soon. If Hippo was right about Cerulean activity being high near the mountain, I don't want to get too close in the dark."
"So what's the deal with these Ceruleans?" Goji wondered as they all sat around the campfire and ate their evening Japari Buns. "I've been hearing about them since I got here, but I've never seen one. What are they? And why is everyone so worried about them?"
"Nobody really knows what they are," Iwabi said. "They're just... things. Usually just big colored blobs with an eye on the front. They've been plaguing the Park for as long as anyone can remember, but we don't know where they come from or why."
"The first ones were blue," Serval explained, "and people assumed they all were. That's why they're called Ceruleans. Turns out they come in all colors, though. We even saw a giant black one once. That was a bad day." She shivered reflexively at the memory; Kaban took her hand with a reassuring smile, receiving a grateful one in return.
"What do they do?" asked Goji.
"By themselves, nothing, as far as we know," Kaban said. "They just float around. But if they see a Friend, they always attack."
Iwabi nodded. "They chase their victims, corner them, and then engulf them."
"I think they want the Sandstar we all carry inside us," said Tsuchinoko. "Friends are born from Sandstar, you know? We use it when we tap our wild natures." She concentrated for a moment, opening her mouth. With a shimmer of rainbow sparks, her eyes glowed cyan and a pair of long, wickedly curved fangs extruded from her upper jaw. A drop of venom fell from one of them, sizzling faintly as it hit the ground; then she relaxed, her fangs retracting and eyes returning to normal.
"It recharges naturally," she went on, "but if a Cerulean 'eats' one of us, it can... sort of rip all her Sandstar out."
Goji blinked. "... That doesn't sound good."
"You don't die from it," said Iwabi. "Not exactly. But if a Cerulean takes all your Sandstar, so that there's no... no seed left for it to grow back from... you stop being a Friend."
"You lose your human side and turn back into just a regular animal," Serval confirmed, looking and sounding as solemn as Goji had ever seen her. "And forget."
Goji arched an eyebrow. "Forget what?" she asked, fairly certain she already knew.
Serval bowed her head, a tear slipping down her cheek. "Everything," she whispered, then turned and hugged Kaban tight. Kaban put her arms around Serval in turn, murmuring quiet reassurance.
Her eyes glinting in the firelight, Tsuchinoko said, "I can't speak for anyone but myself, but that's close enough to dying for me."
The others nodded silent agreement.
After an uncomfortable few seconds' silence, Goji said hesitantly, "Right. OK. Important safety tip." Hanging her head, she added, "Sorry, guys. I didn't mean to bring everybody down."
Kaban shook her head. "No, it's important you know what the stakes are."
Tsuchinoko nodded. "Kaban here is the only one ever to get eaten by a Cerulean and come away able to tell the tale. 'Cause she's human anyway, right? So she just turned back into... herself."
This time both of Goji's eyebrows went up. "Wow."
"I was just lucky," Kaban said. "Serval-chan and everybody else did everything to get me back and destroy the Cerulean. I was no help at all," she added ruefully.
"It was your plan," Serval pointed out, still clinging to her.
"We'd never have figured out what to do about it on our own," Iwabi agreed.
"And Lucky wouldn't have helped us if not for you," Tsuchinoko added.
"Anyway, the important thing to know if you have to fight a Cerulean is to look for the stone," Iwabi said. "There's always one somewhere on them. Like a gem. Break that, and they sort of... pop."
"Good to know," Goji said, filing the information away with a nod.
The conversation petered out after that, and before long, everyone unpacked their bedrolls and sacked out. Goji sat awake for a while longer, carefully banking the coals of the campfire and thinking. Then she rose, dusting reflexively at her knees, and considered the sleeping Friends.
They even sleep like the animals they were, she thought, a little smile flickering across her face. Tsuchinoko was rolled into a ball, as close as a lifeform with a humanoid shape could get to sleeping in a coil. Iwabi was stretched out flat on her belly, her face tucked into the crook of her elbow. And Serval, well, Goji had seen enough cats and cat spirits in her life to recognize the This Is My Human position readily enough.
Moving silently despite her great size, she slipped away from the camp, around the parked Japari Bus, and away out of earshot, then keyed her com implant.
"Nakajima to Steelhaven," she said quietly.
"Go ahead, Shingoji," her mission officer's voice immediately replied. She wondered idly when he slept. Never on the firm's time, presumably.
"Just want to warn you, I'm heading into a potential CA tomorrow. Area infested with a hostile... let's go with 'lifeform', though at this point I'm not sure that's what it is. You might see some, uh... energy spikes."
"Do you need backup?"
"Hopefully not. They've accepted the reality of me, but I don't think they're ready for the implications of you yet. If I get in over my head, though, you'll be the first to know."
"Roger that. Good luck."
That task taken care of, she went back around the bus, then pulled up short as she saw Tsuchinoko's glowing eyes regarding her from the shadows.
Did she hear that? Goji wondered. A moment later, without a sound, one of the cyan points went dark, then glowed again, and then they both went out.
Goji stood looking at the cryptid's dark, motionless shape for a few long moments, then found a spot to lie down, rested her head on her tail, and dropped off into an uneasy sleep.
The cave Tsuchinoko was taking them to was at the end of a canyon, one of several dry riverbeds that radiated from the base of Sandstar Mountain. The next morning, Kaban drove the bus as far into that canyon as she dared, then turned it around while there was still room to do so and parked it facing back the way they came—ready for a quick getaway, if one proved necessary.
They walked the rest of the way, reaching the mouth of the cave before midday. As they approached, Goji had the thought that there was something odd about it, although she wasn't able to put her finger on it until just before they entered. The end of the canyon was choked with debris from rockslides that had come down the flanks of the mountain in earlier times, including some quite substantial boulders, but the cave entrance was clear and readily accessible.
She paused, regarding one of the boulders where it lay to the side of the path with a thoughtful frown.
"Goji-chan? What's wrong?" Kaban asked.
"This rock didn't get here naturally," Goji said. "See these gouges? Tool marks. It's been moved." She straightened up, hands on hips, and took a panoramic look around the site. "Yeah. The actual tracks on the ground have eroded away, but somebody was in here with heavy equipment a long time ago, clearing the way into this cave."
"You can tell that just from looking at the rocks? That's like something Kaban would do," Iwabi said, sounding impressed.
Kaban shook her head. "I thought there was something odd about this place, but I wouldn't have been able to tell what it was. I wouldn't have known what to look for."
"So that's why this place felt so strange when I was here before," Tsuchinoko mused. "I didn't realize what I was looking at either. The humans were all long gone by the time I came along." She touched the machinery scars on one of the rocks and went on, "I wonder why they wanted to get in here so bad."
"Well, there's only one way to find out," said Serval practically, and the five entered the cave.
Inside, the signs of artificial modification were too obvious for any of them to miss, even with the Friends' limited knowledge of such things. It quickly became apparent that the cave wasn't a cave at all. The tunnel they were walking in was too regular, its shape too consistent to have been carved out by nature. All this was easy to see, even for those of the party whose vision wasn't adapted to the dark, because the tunnel was illuminated from within; its walls were studded with outcrops of Sandstar, and its glow provided ample light to navigate by.
"What were they doing here?" Goji wondered aloud, running her fingers along the wall. "Mining? What for? Apart from the food machine, I haven't seen anything in the Park that could use Energon for fuel."
"They were probably studying it," Kaban said. "Remember the book you showed me? They knew Sandstar is what makes Friends. They were probably trying to figure out how."
"That fits with what little I know about the Ancients," Tsuchinoko agreed. "I've always believed they didn't really know what was happening when the first generation of us appeared."
That topic exhausted, the group moved deeper into the cave in a wary silence, all of them on the lookout for any sign that they weren't alone down here. Presently the tunnels started branching, the network taking on something of the aspect of a maze. Tsuchinoko took point, both because she knew where they were trying to go (at least in theory) and because, with her viper-like pit organ, she could sense Ceruleans through the walls, if any were skulking in other passages nearby.
As they delved deeper into the mine, the concentration of Sandstar in the walls increased. From scattered outcroppings, it increased in density until it made up more of the tunnel walls than ordinary rock.
"It feels weird being this close to so much Sandstar," Serval observed. "I feel like my fur is standing up straight, and I don't even have most of it any more."
"Your tail is looking pretty bushy right now," Iwabi confirmed, sounding amused. "And—oh wow, Goji, those things on your back are glowing."
Goji nodded. "I know. It's because there's so much free energy seeping out of these crystals. My body absorbs radiation."
"Isn't radiation... dangerous?" Iwabi asked nervously, but Goji shook her head.
"It's not that kind of radiation. Not ionizing. You guys should be fine."
Iwabi didn't look entirely convinced, but a moment later they rounded a bend and entered a space that put the whole matter straight out of her head. It was a more-or-less-round chamber with a high domed ceiling, and it was big enough to contain the entire amphitheatre up north where PPP was headquartered. However, it did not contain an amphitheatre. Instead, it contained three things in roughly equal abundance:
"Uh-oh," said Serval, a trifle inadequately.
Uncertain what to do, the five crowded in behind a rocky outcrop near the tunnel entrance, then peeked over and around it. The mob of Ceruleans in the cavern didn't seem to have noticed the intrusion; they carried on milling aimlessly around, with no evident purpose or destination.
"I was just about to say something like 'it's weird, Hippo said the Ceruleans were thick around the mountain and we haven't seen a single one,'" Tsuchinoko observed in a low voice. "But, uh, here they all are, havin' a big old Cerulean party."
"Maybe they have a band that's putting on a concert," said Serval.
Iwabi snickered in spite of herself. "I can't imagine the Ceruleans Performance Project would be any good."
"Tsuchinoko, can you see the crystal you saw before?" asked Kaban.
"I can't see anything but Ceruleans," Tsuchinoko replied. "And whatever that black stuff is, that wasn't here before."
"It's... the Ancients called it 'Sandstar Rho'," Kaban whispered—
—And to her horror, Lucky picked up the thread, announcing in a normal tone of voice that reverberated off the cavern walls, "Sandstar Rho is a dangerous form of Sandstar, believed to be the active substance in the manifestation of Ceruleans."
The nearest Ceruleans paused in their apparently random movements and turned, their large, staring single eyes swiveling to fix on the Friends' increasingly-inadequate-feeling hiding place.
"Lucky!" Kaban hissed, clamping a hand over the device on her wrist. "Be quiet!"
"Alert: High concentrations of Sandstar Rho detected in this area," Lucky went on, if anything in a louder voice, as befit the urgency of the situation. "Recommend immediate withdrawal."
"I mean it's not his worst idea," Tsuchinoko offered as every Cerulean in the place turned and started heading toward their position.
Goji considered the oncoming mob for a moment, then smiled, her triangular teeth gleaming in the glow of the nearest Sandstar nodule.
"No," she said, "this is perfect."
Then, straightening to her full height, she put a hand on top of the rock and vaulted it, springing over to confront the Cerulean horde head-on.
"I'll keep them busy," she said. "You guys find that tesseract and get out of here. I'll be right behind you."
"Goji-chan!" Kaban cried, but Goji glanced back over her shoulder with a grin.
"Trust me," she said, then faced front again, cracking her knuckles. "I do this for a living."
The rest was... not silence.
The huge chamber left behind by the Ancients' attempt to mine Sandstar from the Great Sandstar Mountain was exactly the kind of place Tsuchinoko would have liked to spend a long time examining. As the self-appointed archaeologist of Japari Park, she had spent her entire life as a Friend seeking out and studying the relics left behind by the humans who had once occupied and operated the Park. She would have been the first to admit that she possessed a slightly obsessive personality, and the Ancients were her obsession: who they were, why they built Japari Park, and what drove them to abandon it just as, by every indication she'd yet found, things were getting really interesting.
She could happily have spent weeks, even months, in this place, meticulously searching for clues to those matters among the shining columns and jaggedly irregular formations of Sandstar crystals that filled the vast space.
Of course, that would have required it not to be the site of a pitched battle between a strange visitor from another world and the biggest horde of Ceruleans she'd ever seen together in one place. The noise of that conflict, reverberating throughout the cavern, was almost as distracting as the possibility that she and the small group she was with might be spotted and set upon by the Ceruleans themselves at any moment.
Keeping as low as possible, Tsuchinoko clambered over a jumble of Sandstar blocks, her eyes searching the shadows cast by the mineral's otherworldly glow for any details that might help her find her way through this crystalline maze.
"Ow!" she said as she slipped down the far side of the heap, banging an elbow painfully on one of the cubes at the bottom. "Dammit!"
"Are you all right, Tsuchinoko?" asked Kaban, crawling after her as quickly as she could while staying quiet.
"Sure, great," Tsuchinoko replied, rubbing her elbow. "You know, one of the advantages of being a Friend was supposed to be that I wouldn't have to crawl around on my belly any more."
Iwabi slid face-first down the glassy slope of one of the larger blocks nearby, remarking to herself that the sensation paled somewhat when what awaited at the bottom was a dusty skid to a halt rather than a refreshing plunge into cold water. "I heard that," she agreed ruefully.
"Do you see the thing we're after anywhere?" Serval whispered as she crept carefully after Kaban.
"If I did, don't you figure I'd be picking it up by now?" Tsuchinoko snapped. "Don't rush me! I don't handle pressure well."
"I'm not saying I'm unsympathetic," Iwabi said, "but I bet the Ceruleans won't care about your psychological problems."
Tsuchinoko's only reply was an irritated hiss. At times like this, she wished she had a tail rattle, like some of her cousins.
A moment later, she froze, her cyan-glowing eyes widening in the gloom. Even though it didn't really work that way any more, her tongue involuntarily flickered out, tasting the air.
"There it is," she whispered.
The others all turned, following her eyeline, and looked. Kaban took a second or two to spot it, nestled as it was in a formation of other, similar-looking crystals: a perfect cube of Sandstar, its glow slightly brighter than that of the nodes around it. It was right there, perfectly in the open, looking like one could just pick it up and carry it away. There were only two problems:
"And me without my swimsuit," said Iwabi with a sigh. "Oh well, it's pretty warm in here by my standards." She took off her Japari Park T-shirt, handed it to Kaban, then shrugged back into her hoodie and zipped it up tight. "Here goes nothing!"
So saying, she walked to the edge of the pond, stood looking down for a moment, then hopped lightly off the edge—and disappeared completely into the dark water.
"Iwabi!" Serval cried, remembering just in time to keep her voice down. The three watched the water for an apprehensive second or two, and then Iwabi surfaced a few yards from shore, shaking her head.
"Well, that's plenty deep," said the penguin philosophically. "Cover me, I'll be right back."
She struck out for the opposite shore, and Kaban, who had never seen her swim any real distance before—the aquatic parts of PPP shows were always done in much smaller pools than this—was amazed at how fast she was. In her humanoid form, she swam with a powerful breaststroke, adapted from the way her original body would have "flown" through the water with wings adapted into hydroplanes. At each stroke, she disappeared completely below the surface, and when she appeared again, she was several body-lengths beyond where she'd gone down. It took her only seconds to swim a distance that Kaban judged would have taken her at least as many minutes.
Iwabi emerged from the flooded pit on the far side with a wild leap that trailed Sandstar sparkles behind her, springing out of the water by more than twice her height to alight on a half-buried boulder partway up the rock face. Without hesitating, she bounded upward, making great both-footed leaps from one prominence to another, until she stood on a narrow ledge before the cube Tsuchinoko had spotted earlier.
Up close, it was even more impressive than it had been from the far side of the pool. Just as Kaban had described the other one she'd seen, it looked like an artifact, not a natural phenomenon, so perfect were its cube shape and the smoothness of its faces. And within it—outside it?—constantly changing places with it?—the mindbending shadow of a second cube, impossible for Iwabi's three-dimensional mind to perceive fully. It was simultaneously fascinating and somehow disturbing, making her want to stare at it forever and never look at it again.
Giving her head another firm shake, she recovered her concentration, reached out, and took hold of the cube. It was warm, and its surface felt slightly elusive—almost amorphous, as if its true shape defied her sense of touch as it did the sight of her eyes, and yet not soft or squishy like a normal shapeless object would be. She got as firm a hold on it as she could and pulled, hoping it wasn't fused to the crystals around it.
It wasn't; with a soft, musical sound, it popped free of the formation. Grinning in triumph, Iwabi turned around—and saw a squad of Ceruleans bouncing over the ridge she and her friends had just climbed down to reach the edge of the pool, behind Tsuchinoko and the others.
"Guys! Look out!" she cried, and the three turned to confront their attackers, but the shout also attracted the Ceruleans' attention. A couple of them broke off their attack on the others to come after her instead, only to plunge into the pool and sink instantly out of sight.
A third Cerulean that had headed her way seemed to notice what had befallen its fellows. It paused at the water's edge for a moment, as if considering its options... and then rose from the ground and started floating up toward her, apparently borne aloft by nothing more than the sinister humming noise it was making.
"Oh, that's just not fair," Iwabi grumbled.
Then, calling forth her wild side again, she enfolded both her arms around the cube as tightly as possible, got a short running start on the narrow ledge, and jumped as far out as she could. She hit the water feet first, throwing up a tremendous splash, and surfaced nearly halfway to the opposite shore. Even hampered as she was by having to keep hold of the cube with her arms, she reached that shore long before the floating Cerulean could alter course and follow.
Luckily, the Ceruleans that had come this way to investigate were all relatively small, and between them, Tsuchinoko, Serval, and Kaban were able to dispatch them without injury.
Iwabi burst from the water in a last spray of Sandstar sparks, stumbled to a halt between Tsuchinoko and Serval, and fell to one knee, momentarily tapped out from the effort of her hell-for-leather swim.
"Heads up," she panted, "brought one back with me."
Tsuchinoko and Serval turned, seeing the aerial Cerulean making for them across the pond. Serval spotted the twinkle of its core stone on its curved upper surface and gauged the distance, preparing herself to spring onto it and strike from above.
Before she couple complete her calculations, Kaban stepped past her, scooped up a fist-size rock from the ground, tossed it lightly in the air, and caught it again, weighing it in her hand. Catching Serval's eye, she gave her a wink—
—And then, with a shimmering wild release of her own, she wound up, raising one foot clean off the ground, and hurled the rock with a complicated full-body motion that turned her almost completely around, switching her stance from one foot to the other in the process. Trailing Sandstar sparkles behind it, the rock hurtled through the air, spinning end-over-end as it did so, and struck the Cerulean's stone with a sharp, reverberating crack!
Its core stone fracturing, the Cerulean disintegrated, bursting into a cloud of particles that cooled, darkened, and sank into the pond.
It had taken Kaban a long time to figure out that there was something physical, as opposed to cognitive, that humans did better than almost any other animal. For the longest time, she'd assumed that wasn't so—that compared to every other Friend's in the Park, her purely human body was soft, slow, and weak, and the quickness of her wits and the flexibility of her mind were the only advantages she could count on.
As with most of her best discoveries, she'd made this one while under pressure. One fine day in the Mountain Area, with her back to the wall and no other options, Kaban had learned that other animals might be bigger, or stronger, or faster, or see better in the dark, or all of the above... but humans, properly motivated, were really, really good at throwing things.
She allowed herself a millisecond's glow of triumph at Tsuchinoko's deadpan, "... Nice throw," before the urgency of the situation brought her back to business.
"You got it!" she said, noting the glowing cube still cradled in Iwabi's arms. "Great job, Iwabi. Let's go get Goji-chan and get out of here!"
"Oh—don't look directly at the cube," Tsuchinoko cautioned, a little too late.
"I looked at the cube, Tsuchinoko," Serval replied in an absent-minded tone, staring glassy-eyed at it.
Kaban looked around and picked up Iwabi's T-shirt, which she'd dropped to free her hands for rock-throwing, then wrapped it around the cube and broke Serval's incipient trance.
"Sorry, Iwabi," apologized, but the penguin, still catching her breath, waved it away.
"When I released my wild side to get across the pond, my swimsuit grew back," she said, unzipping her hoodie to prove it. "Weird, right?"
"That's because our clothes are part of what makes us Friends, and—" Tsuchinoko began in her "expert voice", then stopped herself, shook her head, and started trying to herd them all ahead of her. "Never mind! Let's go, let's go!"
Fortunately, Goji wasn't hard to spot, since she towered over everything in her vicinity and was glowing. She was still by the entrance, surrounded by Ceruleans that she'd broken but not quite killed; they would regenerate in time, but with so many of them crowding around, she didn't always have the luxury of finishing them off before some other matter commanded her attention. It was an inefficient way to fight, but there weren't a lot of options in a mob situation like this one.
On the plus side, what with all the stray Energon radiation in here, she felt like she could've kept this up pretty much all day, and she'd quickly figured out that these things couldn't actually hurt her much. A few of them had sharp edges that had done a number on her clothes... again... but thus energized, her hide was tougher than theirs, and she could just keep smashing them indefinitely. There was a danger that they might manage to mob-rush her and pin her against a wall, though, so she had to keep her wits about her.
Kaban and the others scrambled over the heap of debris to her right, zigzagging between crushed and mangled Ceruleans. Seeing them coming, Goji pivoted and lashed out with her tail, opening a path for them to reach her side.
"Did you get the thing?" she asked, not taking her eyes off the enemy. A group of them tried to rush her from the right, or possibly get past her and strike at the Friends, but she intercepted them with a flying elbow and tail-swept the area clear again.
"Got it!" Iwabi reported, holding up the shirt-wrapped cube.
"Then let's get the hell out of here!" Goji declared. Summoning her strength, she seized a boulder bigger than she was tall, hefted it above her head, and flung it into the main mass of Ceruleans, mashing a few and scattering the rest. (Her father, teaching her to fight years before, had called this maneuver "Bowling for Baddies".) While they regrouped, she and the others took the opportunity to leg it.
The Ceruleans didn't take long to recover; there were simply too many of them for such a maneuver to hold them for long. Within seconds they were pouring out of the chamber in hot pursuit.
Seeing that Kaban was getting winded—she had good endurance, but it was optimized for a less frantic pace than this—Goji swept her up with one long arm, lugging her like a duffel bag.
This deep within the mountain, the mine was a maze, and occasionally fresh spates of Ceruleans would burst out of side tunnels, forcing sudden course changes and diversions. Only Tsuchinoko's knowledge of the tunnels and her pit sense kept them from getting hopelessly lost or crushed between advancing enemy masses as they made their way back toward the surface.
They had the exit in sight when yet another stream of Ceruleans erupted from the last side passage before the exit. Tsuchinoko, Serval, and Iwabi made it past, but Goji had to pull up with a cry of consternation before she charged straight into their midst.
"Keep going!" she yelled to the others. "I'll find another way!"
There was only one other way to find, really, in the form the last side tunnel they'd passed before this one. She had to really hustle to backtrack to it before the mass of Ceruleans surging up the main tunnel caught up, but reach it she did, and fortunately there weren't even more Ceruleans coming down it as she hung a hard right and darted into it.
"OK," she admitted, "this could be better."
"At least we're going up and not down," Kaban pointed out, and Goji realized she was right; the floor of this tunnel wasn't level. She was running up a grade, not steep enough to pose a problem, but definitely heading uphill.
She risked a glance over her shoulder. Sure enough, the stream of Ceruleans had branched, some of them chasing her up this passage while the main body of them kept after the others. Teeth gritted, she applied herself to the task of staying ahead of them. At least this uphill tunnel didn't seem to have any side branches, so there was nowhere for more ambush parties to come from—but did it lead anywhere?
They rounded a bend, the soles of Goji's boots scattering gravel, and saw that it did. Fifty yards or so ahead, a blazing irregular oval of daylight showed that they were nearly outside... but as the tunnel leveled off, it became apparent that they were also going to come out halfway up the mountain.
"Well, that's not ideal," Goji observed, then mumbled as if to herself, "Still, with the amount of energy floating around in here..."
"Goji-chan?" Kaban wondered, a note of concern coming into her voice, as she noticed that Goji wasn't slackening her pace; she was still running toward the tunnel's end at full speed, sheer drop into nowhere or not. Then again, the alternative was being caught by the Ceruleans, which would probably throw them out anyway, but...
"Kaban?" said Goji, her tone almost conversational.
"Whatever happens in the next few seconds, just hang on," Goji said, shifting her grip so that she held Kaban against her chest behind crossed arms.
"OK," Kaban agreed, because really, what else could she do?
As she crossed the last few yards of solid ground they had to work with, Goji still didn't slow; if anything, she poured on more speed, closing her eyes and bowing her head in concentration. With a last bounding stride, she cleared the tunnel mouth and leaped out into space.
What a nice view from up here, Kaban thought abstractly as the Savannah spread out below them. There's the tree where Serval and I... hm?
Her train of thought was disrupted as it occurred to her that they weren't plunging to their deaths.
Tsuchinoko, Serval, and Iwabi stumbled to a halt by the Japari Bus, breathing hard, and turned back to look at the mountain. There was no sight of pursuit for the time being—but no sign of Goji or Kaban, either.
"Should we go back?" Iwabi wondered.
"Are you out of your flightless mind?" Tsuchinoko demanded.
"We can't just leave Kaban and Goji-chan!" Iwabi protested. Turning to Serval, she went on, "Right?"—but Serval was looking past her and pointing into the sky.
"Look!" she cried, and they looked.
High up on the mountain, a dark shape had just jumped from a high ledge. From its size and color, it had to be Goji-chan, and from this distance, Kaban could only be made out as a smudge of red and white standing out against the black of Goji's clothes. They hurtled out, away from the mountainside, and began to arc downward. Serval drew breath to cry out in dismay, but before any sound could emerge, Goji's shape suddenly... changed.
From her back, a colossal pair of wings unfurled—not the feathered wings of a bird, nor the leathery wings of a bat, but iridescent wings made up of millions of glittering scales. They were like the wings of a gigantic moth, their jagged scarlet-and-blue markings calling to mind the shape of the plates running down her spine.
"You can fly?" Kaban asked, astonished.
"Not in this gravity," Goji replied. "I can't bend the laws of physics as much as Mom can. The best I can manage in a Standard environment is about a four-to-one glide." She smirked. "This isn't flying, it's falling with style."
While the three Friends watched in amazement, Goji and Kaban swooped down from the mountainside toward them. At the last moment, Goji pulled up slightly, flaring to land like a bird; she still hit the ground fairly hard, but with finesse, her wings seeming to dissolve into a cloud of blue sparks as she tucked and rolled, taking the impact on hip and shoulder and sparing Kaban the brunt of it.
"Oof," she remarked, clambering to her feet. "Not my most graceful entrance." Bending to help up her erstwhile passenger, she asked, "You OK, Kaban?"
"I think so," Kaban replied, feeling herself for injuries. "Where's my hat?"
"Right here, no da!" declared a voice from behind her, and they all turned to see a figure standing in the middle of the dry riverbed, just by the mark Goji and Kaban made when they hit the ground, holding up Kaban's pith helmet like some sort of holy talisman.
"Kaban!" the new arrival declared, her rounded animal ears twitching and ringed tail lashing the air with emotion. "It really hurts my feelings that you didn't ask me, the number-one treasure hunter in Japari Park, to help you with this, no da! But it's fine now, no da."
Order: Carnivora | Family: Procyonidae | Genus: Procyon
Tossing Kaban's hat to her, the newcomer struck a triumphant pose with fists on hips and announced, "Raccoon is here, no da!"
Another Friend, this one blonde and sporting an unusually large pair of fox ears, scrambled down the riverbank next to Raccoon, raised a hand and said in a rather less dramatic tone, "Hiiii, guys. Sorry about this. We stopped at the watering hole and Hippo was there..."
Order: Carnivora | Family: Canidae | Genus: Vulpes
"Hi, Fennec!" called Serval cheerfully, waving back. "Hey, how are you at running for your life?"
Fennec tilted her head quizzically. "Huh? I mean, I'm OK at it if I haaaave to..."
"Great!" Serval declared. "Because, um..." She nodded for Fennec and Raccoon to look behind them.
The ground shook. A hundred yards behind them, what looked like a flash flood rounded the bend in the dry riverbed and started boiling toward them—a flash flood of bouncing, bounding, rolling spheres in a rainbow of colors, each sporting a single staring eye.
"What do—" Fennec began, but then she turned and saw the teeming multitude of Ceruleans bearing down on them. "Ohhhhh," she said, then grabbed Raccoon's arm and dragged her along as she joined the expedition party in headlong flight to the Japari Bus.
"Holy crap, no da!" Raccoon declared, trying to look back over her shoulder and run at the same time, as they all scrambled aboard the vehicle. "What did you guys do, no da?!"
"And who's thiiiis?" Fennec wondered, glancing up at Goji.
"Explanations later, fleeing now!" Iwabi panted, bounding onto the bus behind them.
"Ah!" said Serval as a thought struck her. "Goji-chan! Do that fire-breathing thing!"
"Are you nuts?!" Goji replied. "That mountain is full of raw Energon. If I hit it, I'd blow us all to Fedora Core!"
Serval gave her a curious look. "Where?"
Kaban fired up the bus and put her foot down, and for a moment the expedition party entertained the notion that they might have gotten away, but two things became apparent in short order: the Ceruleans weren't giving up, and the bus wasn't going to outrun them.
"They really don't want us to have this cube thing," said Iwabi.
"Can't you make this thing go any faster?!" Tsuchinoko demanded, crowding up behind the driver's seat.
"It's a tour bus, not a getaway car," Kaban replied with just a trace of asperity.
"What's a 'getaway car', no da?" Raccoon wondered.
"I'll explain later!" Tsuchinoko snapped.
"If we live that looong," Fennec qualified, watching with a mix of awe and fear as the surreal wave of Ceruleans slowly but surely gained on the trundling bus.
As the canyon widened out onto the Savannah plain, the Ceruleans fanned out with it, their mass getting lower but wider, so that they resembled less a wave than a stampeding herd. This didn't make their approach any less worrying, since now they'd be able to engulf the bus from the sides as well as the rear when they caught it.
Goji watched them approach for a few seconds, then went to the ladder in the middle of the bus compartment and called forward to Kaban,
"As soon as we're clear of this canyon, hang a hard turn!"
"Which way?" Kaban asked without turning around.
"Doesn't matter!" Goji replied, starting up the ladder. "Just get the mountain out from behind us."
Despite their situation, that remark called a little smile to Kaban's face. "Got it!" she said, and bent lower over the wheel, as though that might wring a little more speed out of the bus.
Iwabi watched Goji throw open the hatch to the rooftop observation cupola and climb out onto the roof, then turned a quizzical look to Kaban. "What's she doing?"
"You'll see," Serval replied for her, and Iwabi saw the same knowing little smile on her face, too.
Tsuchinoko followed Goji up the ladder, stopping with just her head and shoulders out of the hatch. The black-clad visitor was balanced in a low crouch on the rear half of the roof, her back hunched and long tail cocked above her head like a scorpion's, hands spread for balance. Beyond her, the Ceruleans were less than fifty yards behind now, close enough that Tsuchinoko could hear them thundering over the ground like so many rolling boulders.
And then, to her slightly detached horror, the situation got worse. Some of the Ceruleans near the front of the pack transitioned from rolling to bouncing, jumped higher and higher for three or four bounds, and then... didn't come down. A couple at first, then handfuls, then dozens of Ceruleans took to the air and added "above" to the list of directions they were about to swamp the bus from.
Under the clatter of the bus over the rocky ground and the rolling thunder of the Ceruleans' advance, Tsuchinoko became aware of another sound, one she couldn't immediately place: a low, pulsating hum, almost inaudible at first but growing steadily louder. After a few seconds' confusion, she realized it was coming from Goji, and it was pulsing in time with the brightening violet glow of the jagged plates on her back.
Of course, she thought. The Legendary Beast...
The Ceruleans on the ground were a mere thirty yards behind, the flying ones no more than half that, when the sloping banks of the canyon finally fell away altogether and the bus could maneuver. Kaban immediately made a left turn, hand-over-handing the bus's steering wheel as hard as she dared. She judged it perfectly, making the turn as sharp as it could have been without threatening to overturn the unwieldy vehicle.
The mass of Ceruleans had more inertia; they thundered out onto the plain, forced into a long, arcing left turn of their own to correct their course and intercept the bus. The flying ones fared better; the nearest of their number were now close enough to hit the bus if they dove on it. For the moment they chose not to, perhaps waiting for greater numbers to arrive.
"What are you waiting for?!" Tsuchinoko shouted at Goji.
"For the rest of them to be in range," Goji replied, nodding toward the colossal dust cloud that now shrouded the land-bound Ceruleans as they swept in from the right. "I'm only going to be able to do this once."
She waited one second longer than she dared, and would've pushed it longer, but the first wave of flying Ceruleans started what was obviously an attack run and forced her hand.
"Cover your eyes!" she bellowed to her compatriots below. Her own third eyelids flicked shut at that instant as well. With this many of them, this close, she didn't need to see them anyway. Their unique energy signature stood out to her seventh sense like a bonfire on a salt flat.
Tsuchinoko slipped lower, so that the coaming around the roof hatch was just below eye level, but she couldn't bring herself to withdraw entirely. Not if what she expected was really about to happen.
The glow and hum of Goji's dorsal plates peaked in both frequency and amplitude, the pulses blending into a continuous bright light and electric-transformer snarl. She bent still farther forward, nearly falling to all fours on the roof—
Not one but dozens of blindingly white-violet beams sprang forth, lancing out not from her mouth but from all along the rows of plates lining her spine and upper tail. They drew a lethal, incandescent web in the space above the bus, sweeping out like the quills of a colossal porcupine to sweep the sky all but clear of the flying Ceruleans. A narrower, more concentrated beam issued from the tip of her tail, tracking and eliminating the few who escaped the web like a precision instrument.
The aerial threat dealt with, Goji ceased fire for a moment, kneeling still on the upper deck and gathering herself for the second phase. Tsuchinoko watched in slightly dazzled fascination as the glow, diminished somewhat by the first salvo, built back up again. By now the main body of the Cerulean horde was upon them, sweeping in from behind and to the right—so many of them, spread out so widely, that there seemed to be no end of them.
With a defiant roar, Goji raised herself up, opened her jaws, skipped straight over the smoke and flames she'd opened with in Renraku City, and unleashed the undivided power of her atomic beam upon them. Before Tsuchinoko's shock-widened eyes, the beam swept from horizon to horizon, leaving a rolling wave of explosions in its wake.
It took only seconds—seconds which seemed like a half-hour apiece to their closest, most astonished witness—to completely erase what had been the biggest force of Ceruleans anyone in Japari Park was ever likely to see.
When it was over, Goji turned a grin to Tsuchinoko, white smoke rolling out between her slightly-parted teeth.
"That oughta hold 'em," she said, and then fell to her knees and sprawled flat on her face in front of the roof hatch.
The sun was low on the western horizon, and the last of the minor brush fires sparked by the annihilation of the Cerulean horde had gone out, when Kaban heard their strange visitor stir and groan. By the time Kaban reached her side, Goji was sitting up and looking blearily around the interior of the parked Japari Bus.
"Oh good, you're awake," said Kaban, kneeling next to her. She got out her canteen, wetted a cloth, and put it to Goji's forehead, asking, "How are you feeling?"
"Like I could eat an entire horse," Goji replied, her voice slightly hoarse. Then she blinked still-unfocused eyes and said punch-drunkenly, "Sorry, that was probably weird in this context. Are there horse Friends?" Before Kaban could answer, she went on, "I meant like a regular horse. Anyway it's a figure of speech, I would never eat an actual—"
With a full-body start, she seemed to wake the rest of the way up then. Abandoning the thought, she said instead, "Oh crap! How long was I out?" Once more, Kaban had no time to answer; even as the rest of the group gathered around, Goji lurched unsteadily to her feet and declared, "I have to call in, my mission officer must be having puppies after that light show. Kittens. Cubs. Whatever rhinos have."
"They're called calves," said a mellow male voice from outside.
Goji and all the Friends turned to look out the open side of the bus... to see a rhinoceros—a regular rhinoceros, not a Friend—standing beside it, peering in at them with an amiable sort of expression.
"But I'm not a cow, thank you very much," the rhino continued, sounding faintly amused.
"What the... ?" Iwabi asked no one in particular.
"A talking rhino, no da!" Raccoon exclaimed, a trifle superfluouly.
"It sure iiiis," said Fennec, sounding somewhere between dubious and resigned.
"Oh, for—dammit, Rhinox!" Goji cried, managing to sound exasperated and fond at the same time. "What are you doing here?! I told you I'd take care of this!"
"You also told me you'd call if you got in over your head," Rhinox pointed out.
"I was going to tell you I had everything under control, but I, uh... guess I sort of blacked out right after," Goji admitted.
"Sounds like 'over your head' to me," Rhinox replied complacently.
"Wow. Smug rhino is smug," Serval murmured to Kaban, who nodded.
"I suppose you've never needed a nap," Goji said sarcastically. "Get off my back or I'll tell everyone about the bean vines."
Rhinox eyed her narrowly, then sighed, conceding, and said, "Truth to tell, I was planning to come down anyway. Optimus wants another pair of eyes on the situation here." Chuckling, he added, "I was barely able to talk him out of coming in person."
Goji arched an eyebrow, briefly considering to herself how a Freightliner would manage to be inconspicuous in a nature preserve, then realized she was thinking of the wrong Optimus and rolled her eyes.
"Right. OK, fine. You blew your cover anyway, I guess I might as well introduce you. Guys, this is a friend of mine. He's been keeping an eye on me from orbit while I tried to take care of business down here. That's standard procedure on the kind of job I was on, when I thought this was an uninhabited planet and I was just here to take out Rampage," she explained.
"Hiya," said the rhino. "Just call me Rhinox."
Domain: Anorganica | Kingdom: Mechanoida
"So," Rhinox asked. "Did you get what you were after?"
"We sure did," said Serval, indicating the cloth-wrapped bundle perched on one of the bus seats. (Iwabi had reclaimed her T-shirt in the Savannah heat, so they'd wrapped it in Serval's instead.)
"I'm a little concerned about it, though," Kaban said. "It's definitely... special... but it's quite a bit smaller than the original."
"Let me have a gander," said Rhinox, ambling closer to put his head in through the open side of the bus. Kaban carefully unwrapped the cube for his inspection, careful not to look straight at it.
"Mm. Hmm. Yup," said Rhinox after considering the object carefully for several seconds. "That's an Energon crystal tesseract, all right. Good news is, the size isn't a problem. Infinite energy is infinite energy. Doesn't matter how big the crystal is, it's the fourth-dimensionality that matters."
Most of that went over his audience's heads, but the reassurance was enough to put smiles on faces as Kaban wrapped up the cube again.
You said Rampage was able to hold one of those in robot mode? Rhinox's voice asked from Goji's comm implant, inaudible to everyone else in the bus.
Goji, who had never gotten the hang of speaking into one of these things without doing it out loud, nodded.
Huh, Rhinox replied. Pretty sure if I maximized right now, being this close to an E-wave source that powerful would put me straight into stasis lock. Too bad you had to blow him up, I'll always wonder what kind of chassis mod he had to be able to stand up to that.
Without any useful reply to that even if she could've communicated it privately—What was I supposed to do, glue him back together?—Goji changed the subject, saying out loud, "So I guess it's back to Lion's castle now, eh?"
Kaban nodded. "Mm. Time to see if all this has been worth it. Are you feeling up to coming the rest of the way? Or do you need to leave now that your mission's done? You've done so much for us already, I don't want to assume..."
"Nah, are you kidding?" Goji replied. "Leave before the end?"
"I wouldn't mind tagging along either, if you don't mind," said Rhinox. "I'm going to have to write one heck of a report about all this, so I'd like to see how it turns out in person."
"Ah. Yes," said Kaban, looking slightly uncomfortable. "I've been thinking about that. I mean, I didn't know about you, but I figured Goji-chan would have to report to someone about what she's seen here..." She trailed off, unable to put her concerns into words, but Rhinox seemed to understand anyway.
"Don't worry," he said gently. "I'm on your side. My people messed this world up once already; I'm not about to let it happen a second time."
"When did rhinos mess up the world, nano da?" Raccoon asked Fennec, who shrugged.
With Rhinox joining the expedition, Kaban and company had more reason than ever to be grateful that they'd gone with the larger Japari Bus. The smaller one would have struggled to move a full-grown rhinoceros by himself, let alone the rest of the group—a situation that would only get worse once they collected the ton or so of equipment stashed at Lion's castle.
By the time they reached Hippo's watering hole the next morning, word had gotten around about the strange, dramatic light show in the Savannah. Everyone they met along the way on their two-day drive back to the Plains Area asked about it. More worrying, everyone knew or surmised that they were on an important expedition, and quite a few seemed to know what it was about. Nobody was panicking yet, but there was, understandably, a certain tension in the air.
Once they picked up the cases of equipment at the castle, it became obvious that the word had spread all over the Kyōshū Region, if not throughout Japari Park. In every Area they passed through, Friends sought them out to thank them for trying, wish them good luck, or even, rather touchingly, offer them supplies.
Three days out of Lion's demesne, they passed through the Mountains Area and entered unknown territory. Even Kaban and Serval, who had explored every other corner of Kyōshū Island, had never ventured beyond the Mountains and into the restricted area to their east, where lay the Park's food production area. Kaban hadn't been authorized to enter that area before her accidental promotion to Chief Ranger; and besides, without any need to go there, they had chosen not to tamper with it.
Among the expedition team, only Iwabi had been there before, having braved the exclusion zone with the other members of PPP to appropriate supplies for Kaban's first off-island expedition, many years before. She hadn't been back since—before this emergency, she couldn't have been paid to go back—but she remembered the way well enough. Finding the tunnel through the mountains was the only tricky part.
High on the mountainside, where the tunnel emerged from the rock, Kaban stopped the bus so they could all appreciate the sight of what lay beyond. To the other team members' amazement, this was a lake surrounded on all sides by jagged mountain peaks—Goji and Rhinox, with more of a background for this kind of thing, recognized it immediately as the remnant caldera of an ancient supervolcano—with a low-lying, lushly green island in the center. In another example of Japari Park's unnaturally discrete biomes, it was warm and pleasant here, where the climate over on the other side of the mountain was bleak and icy and wholly uninviting.
"Amaaaazing," Serval murmured, draped over the driver's seat from behind, her chin on Kaban's shoulder.
"I know, right?" Iwabi said, a trifle smugly, then admitted, "I didn't really get a chance to appreciate it last time I was here. Kinda too busy running for my life."
"I don't think the Lucky Beasts would actually have killed you," Kaban said.
"Trespassing in the Crater Area is a very serious offense, but we are programmed never to harm a Friend," Lucky confirmed. "If any are caught in the area, they are restrained and escorted back to their normal habitats. However, all members of this Expedition Party are protected by Chief Ranger Kaban's authority."
"Well, that's gooood," said Fennec laconically. "I don't think I wanna be 'escorted' back to the desert, it doesn't sound like much fuuuun."
Kaban might have agreed, but before she had the chance, Lucky's lens glowed bright green on her wrist and he declared, "Attention. I am receiving a software update from the Special Administration Area's Lucky Beast Alpha. CommuniquÃ© for Chief Ranger Kaban: 'Arrival of Mark II equipment in Crater Area logged. Ready to initialize Food Distribution System conversion. Please proceed to the Visitor Center.' Navigation data is attached. Please engage autodrive."
"Uh... OK," Kaban agreed. After a moment's hunting, she pressed the appropriate button on the bus's minimalist dashboard, then sat back with her hands off the wheel.
Under Lucky's wireless guidance, the bus made its way slowly down the tortuous track from the mountainside tunnel to the lakeshore, then proceeded along an overgrown, but still navigable shoreline trail until they'd gone perhaps a third of the way around the island. From down here, the lush beauty of the crater lake and its surroundings was even more vividly evident than they had been from up on the mountain: a dense, temperate forest of mostly deciduous trees, fragrant with wild flowers.
When they reached the end of the track, the bus halted, and for a moment the expedition members looked at each other in puzzlement: What now? That lasted only a moment, until Lucky announced,
"Now engaging amphibious mode. Please keep your extremities inside the Japari Bus during the conversion."
And with that, and a few mechanical jolts and thuds, the vehicle slid into the water, transformed in moments from a tour bus to a tour boat.
"Huh," said Serval. "Never knew the bigger ones could do that."
"Mm," Kaban agreed, nodding.
They chugged along in the lake for the better part of half an hour, until they reached a point almost exactly opposite the mountainside tunnel. Here, Lucky guided the bus-boat in a broad right turn, swinging the prow around to face the island. As it did, they cleared a small headland, and their destination swung into sight.
The expedition party gazed in silent amazement at the sight before them. Nestled into a cove on the shore of the island was a pier that looked long enough to accept the Park's inter-island ferryboats, and off to either side, a pair of concrete ramps reaching down into the water. Beyond the ramps, a broad boulevard paved in white stones and flanked by neat rows of trees extended up a small hill.
At the top of the hill stood a broad building faced in the same white stone, its neomodernist façade instantly reminding Kaban and Serval of the Park Administration building back in An'in. Upon the pediment above the portico in front were the familiar colorful letters of the JAPARI PARK logotype, and below them, in somewhat more sober carved letters, the words
CRATER · AREA · VISITOR · CENTER
Two things struck Kaban about this building in quick succession. The first was that, unlike every other building she'd ever seen but one, it wasn't a ruin. Even the well-preserved buildings used and kept up by the Friends of the Kyōshū Region, like the Forest Lodge and the Japari Café, were aged and weathered structures, maintained by people with the will, but not necessarily all the skills and resources, to keep them in perfect condition. Those that had been completely abandoned since the humans left, like the ones in the Special Admin Area, were crumbling wrecks.
Only once before had she seen a building that was perfectly preserved, and that was the Care and Nutrition Laboratory in the ruins of Renraku City. This one was like that: clean, pristine, its every surface smooth and gleaming. It was a glimpse into what the whole Park must have looked like, back when it was new and the people running it had every expectation of enduring success.
The other realization, following immediately on that one's heels, what that although in perfect condition, it wasn't quite finished. Here and there, panels of the facing stone were absent: not broken or fallen away, but as if they hadn't yet been installed. There were also were piles of building materials, not fallen into disordered jumbles from a decaying structure, but neatly stacked and ready to be put in place. There were even pieces of machinery, which she guessed had been used in the construction, standing around amid the incomplete landscaping, as though their operators had just left them where they stopped.
Even with that flaw, though, the Visitor Center was a breathtaking sight to people accustomed to the usual shabbiness of Japari Park's long-abandoned places. The Friends among the expedition team all gazed on it in silent wonder as Lucky drove the bus up onto one of the ramps, converting it back into bus mode as he did so, and they proceeded up the white stone avenue toward the building.
Tsuchinoko found her voice first: "'Visitor Center'. They must have intended to open this place to the public when it was finished."
"That makes sense," Goji agreed. "I found a brochure in the Nutrition Lab that talked about taking the Mark II food supply technology to market once it was perfected." And the Friends, she didn't add out loud; that wasn't a worry any of them needed right now.
"The An'in Region Boss talked about that, too," Serval remembered. "When we took the tour of the lab. That was before you showed up, Goji-chan."
"Still sorry I missed the Sample Bun Incident, whatever it was," Goji remarked, causing both Serval and Kaban to blush.
"Now arriving at the Crater Area Visitor Center," Lucky announced, bringing the bus to a halt. "Please install the Mark II equipment within."
Inside, the Visitor Center was as handsome and as slightly-incomplete as the exterior. It had beautifully tiled floors and a subdued but grand sort of décor, with a lot of white marble and discreet bronze accents. The walls were decorated with elaborate bas-reliefs of various animals, and a few statues of larger and more impressive ones were scattered in niches here and there, including a particularly well-rendered sculpture of a bull moose with a colossal set of antlers.
"That's some rack on Moose, huh?" Tsuchinoko remarked, causing a couple of the Friends to give her puzzled looks and Goji to stifle a bark of laughter.
Much of the round central chamber was given over to chrome tables with four or six chairs around them. Counters ran along the curving walls, behind which the walls were covered in metal-edged slots whose function was not immediately obvious. And at the back center of the room they found the largest niche of all, empty save for a short glass pillar that was instantly recognizable to those who had seen the Nutrition Lab.
"This must be where the thingy goes," Serval observed. "Do we have any idea how to put it together?"
"Lucky? Do you have installation instructions for the Mark II?" Kaban asked.
"Unfortunately not," Lucky replied. "The prototype was never intended to be installed in this facility. The fittings you see here are for the production test unit, as is the documentation I have received from the An'in Region's Alpha."
"Oh no," said Iwabi, her shoulders slumping in disappointment.
"Now what do we do, no da?!" Raccoon wondered.
"Well... we'll have to improvise," said Kaban, with a confidence she did not altogether feel. "Let's get the cases open and have a look."
She was, as she'd feared, none the wiser with the cases open. Although often hailed (usually to her bashful embarrassment) as the cleverest animal in Japari Park, she had no frame of reference for any of this stuff; the most complicated device she'd seen before this point was Alpaca Suri's micro-wave oven, and she didn't know how that worked, only how to use it. These metallic boxes and cables and mysterious fixtures might as well have been so many rocks as far as Kaban having any idea how to make a magic food machine out of them.
She was sitting by the larger case, looking at its contents and racking her brain for something she might try, when Rhinox ambled up alongside her and peered into the case as well.
"Hmm," he said. "That's interesting. I mean, as molecular synthesis transmats go, it's pretty basic, and the packaging is a mess, but it looks like a sound enough design. Want me to help you put it together?"
Kaban blinked, then eyed the rhino's profile closely. Was he messing with her?
Rhinox felt her scrutiny and turned his great head to meet her eyes. "Seriously," he said. "I know I don't look it, but I'm pretty good with stuff like this. Just, you know..." He hunched his shoulders in a sort of rhinoceros shrug. "No thumbs."
Kaban smiled and gave a seated bow. "Thank you. I'm in your debt. Are you sure it's OK? You won't get into trouble for interfering?"
"Nah, not at all. You got this far," Rhinox told her. "I'm just gonna help you get over the last hurdle, that's all."
It took four hours for Kaban, with her friends' directed help and Rhinox's helpful suggestions, to wrangle all the stuff out of the two cases and get it put together in the niche where the production Mark II was meant to go. The resulting conglomeration of equipment didn't look as elegant as the rest of the building, but it was all there, all connected, and seemed sturdy: an irregular stack of mysterious boxes covered in what looked like tiny rectangular windows, with a compartment in the middle like the one the Mark II had had when it was set up in the Nutrition Lab, and an enclosure for the power source at the top.
The Friends present were all too short to reach the latter, so it fell to Goji to do the honors. She stood before the machine with the tesseract in both hands, regarding the nest of receptors and wires where it was meant to go, for a few seconds. Then, silently reciting Shepard's Prayer in her head, she slotted it into place.
With a chiming sound like a Sandstar release, the tesseract's glow brightened and spread throughout the machine. The front of the enclosure clicked shut automatically, hiding the slightly mindbending sight of the hypercube from the eyes of onlookers. On the modules that made up the machine's main body, the little window-like bits lit up, revealing themselves to be dozens of tiny multicolored lamps. A moment later, the screen next to the dispenser compartment flickered to life, showing a friendly welcome screen.
"Mark II system powered up," Lucky reported. "Commencing startup diagnostics. Please wait warmly." The Friends and Goji held their breath for several agonizingly extended seconds while whatever was going on inside the machine happened.
Then, with a cheerful noise, the welcome screen changed to an equally friendly-looking menu, and Lucky announced, "Diagnostics complete, no faults found. Mark II system ready."
Cheers, high fives, hugs; the next minute or so was a blur of celebration, as everyone gathered around Kaban and Rhinox, unanimously declaring them the heroes of the hour.
"I knew you could do it, no da!" Raccoon blubbered, tears streaming down her face. Overcome by emotion, she clung to Kaban in a way that flummoxed her and caused a faint, instantly-quashed spark of jealousy in Serval. "You saved Japari Park again, no da!"
"Raccoon-saaan," said Fennec indulgently, prying her away from the bemused human and drying her tears.
"No, really," Kaban protested, her face nearly as red as her shirt. "I couldn't have done it alone, not even close. Rhinox is the one who knew how to actually make this stuff work. Without Goji-chan and Norway and Blackie, we'd never have gotten out of Renraku City alive. The Lucky Beasts in the An'in Region did everything they could for us. Tsuchinoko knew where to find another cube, and Iwabi's the one who got it out of that cave and brought us here. Serval-chan kept me going on the trail all those weeks before we found the Admin Area. We..." Tearing up herself, she sniffled, smiling, and went on, "We all saved Japari Park."
"Attention," Lucky said suddenly, somewhat spoiling the tone of the group hug that followed. "Communiqué from An'in Region Lucky Beast Alpha. 'Park-wide Food Distribution System conversion in progress. Calibrating Mark II system with estimated demand parameters. Some unusual behavior may result. Do not be alarmed.' Message ends."
"Unusual behavior?" said Tsuchinoko, tilting her head.
"What kind of unusual behavior?" Iwabi wondered.
A moment later, the food machine's central compartment glowed and dispensed a Japari Bun—rather forcefully dispensed it, ejecting it clean out of the machine and toward the middle of the room.
"I got it!" Serval cried. Deep instinct propelled her to snag the bun in mid-air, as her wild pre-Friend form had once leaped to catch birds on the wing.
A moment later, another bun shot forth. "I got it!" Serval declared again, springing to intercept that one as well.
Before anyone else could react, the slots behind the counters all along the wall began to glow, and then they, too, started discharging Japari Buns—one every second or so for the first few seconds, and then faster and faster, until warm pastries were volleying forth like fire from dozens of machine guns set in an arc all around the back half of the room.
"I got—I—wait—I don't got—what—haaaaallllp" cried Serval as she tried in vain to catch the next half-dozen buns, then fell before the onslaught.
As Kaban hurried to rescue her, the rest of the Friends, Goji, and Rhinox retreated as well, those who could do so shielding their faces from the flying food. Before long, the bun flood threatened to fill the room and bury them all, as if in a snowdrift or a sand dune.
"Whoa! Sorcerer's Apprentice mode engaged," Goji remarked as the sea of pastry reached her hips.
"Where's Hululu when we really need her?" Iwabi wondered, struggling to keep from being bunned under.
"Fennec! Raccoon will save you, no da!" Raccoon declared, although no one could see how she intended to accomplish that.
And then, just as it seemed they might perish in the most preposterous imaginable way on the brink of victory, the tide of Japari Buns stopped and the machinery fell silent.
"Calibration complete," Lucky announced. "Thank you for your patience. Please enjoy any excess product that may have appeared during the calibration process."
The Friends, Goji, and Rhinox lay amid the carnage, half-buried in Japari Buns, and glanced around at each other for a few seconds before bursting out laughing.
"I think we're going to need some help to get through this lot," Goji mused.
The last day
We didn't have to wait long for that help. All over the Park, Lucky Beasts were breaking their usual silence and telling nearby Friends that the food crisis was resolved, and that the Crater Area, formerly known as the Farm Area, in eastern Kyōshū was no longer restricted territory. Interested Friends were encouraged to visit the new Crater Area Visitor Center, which was now open to the Park's guests (which didn't exist, but never mind) as well as all residents.
The first of them, mostly fliers, arrived just before nightfall, including Professor Konoha and Mimi-chan. By midday today, virtually everyone in Kyōshū had turned up, guided by Lucky Beasts through new tunnels and mountain passes, to check out the new attraction. Even Norway and Blackie came, hitching rides over from An'in with a couple of curious bird Friends.
With so many Friends coming to see what had happened, the whole thing turned into a block party like I haven't seen since we defeated the Black Cerulean, years ago. They filled the Visitor Center's dining hall, experimenting with the Japari Bun dispensers' menu system and trying out all the new things the system can make. Our band got back together, the rest of PPP was there, and everyone had a great time. It was the perfect way to cap off a long and tough expedition.
(Serval-chan got Lion all hopped up on Recreational Supplement 72-549. Before long, she was declaring her everlasting love for Moose, which Moose thought was good but also very confusing, particularly when the part with the chewing and drooling started. I don't think that was very nice of Serval-chan, but it was funny. Even Moose thought so... eventually.)
Lucky told me the other Lucky Beasts are setting up little kiosks all over the Park now. He called them "remote nodes" for the new food system. His colleagues will still be patrolling with baskets of regular Japari Buns, like they always have, but now anyone who wants something specific can just find one of the terminals and call up whatever they're after. The Ancients would have been charging guests Japari Coins to use these, I suppose, but Lucky says they're free for Friends.
Everyone's very excited right now, but hopefully once people have had a chance to adjust and the novelty wears off a little, life in Japari Park can get back to normal.
For the time being, anyway...
The next morning, while most of the partygoers were still sprawled around the floor or the grounds of the Visitor Center sleeping it off, Goji and Rhinox slipped away as quietly as a rhino and an eight-foot kaijū girl can slip. In practice, this proved not quite quiet enough, as they entered the clearing behind the Visitor Center to find three people waiting for them.
"Taking off without saying goodbye?" Tsuchinoko asked, leaning casually against a tree, hands in her hoodie pockets.
"Really now," said Serval mock-indignantly from a branch of that tree, right above her.
Kaban stepped out from behind the tree on the side opposite Tsuchinoko, asking with a smile, "After all we've been through?"
"We figured it would be best to do it so nobody saw us leave," said Goji.
"Not that we haven't made things plenty weird just by being here," Rhinox added, "but, you know... there's weird, and then there's what we're about to do."
"This isn't the last you'll see of me, though," Goji said. "Probably. I hope."
"The people we work for are going to want to keep a close eye on this place," Rhinox explained. "We work for an organization that tries to safeguard peace and justice wherever we find it—to make sure people like you are free to live the way you want. Not everybody in the galaxy is dedicated to those ideals... and a society like yours is incredibly vulnerable to people who aren't."
Kaban nodded. "I understand. I've been thinking about it a lot since I first learned where Goji-chan came from. I want to know what's out there—and I don't think I'll be alone in that—but most Friends aren't so curious. They'll just want to live their lives."
"And they have that right," Goji agreed. "So we—the outfit we work for, I mean—will do whatever it takes to keep the wrong people from finding out about you, or keep them away if they do."
"Luckily," Rhinox added, "we're pretty good at that."
"So," Goji concluded, "once we make our report, our bosses will almost certainly send a couple-three folks back here. Ambassadors, emissaries, whatever you want to call them. Not to interfere with your world, but to keep an eye on you, learn more about you, and provide a point of contact if you want to reach them. And if I can swing it," she added with a little grin, "I'll be one of them."
"In the meantime, you guys should decide if you want to send anyone out," said Rhinox. "If your own leaders decide to pursue any kind of contact with the outside, you'll need a scout or two to look around and report back on what's out there. That way you can make informed decisions about how involved you want to be with the outside world—if at all."
"Gee, I wonder who's gonna volunteer for that mission," said Tsuchinoko sarcastically, making Kaban blush.
"Yeah, figured as much," said Goji. From a pocket that seemed too small to have contained it, she produced a gaily patterned red-and-blue paperback book, which she tossed to Kaban, saying, "Read up on that when you get a chance."
"It'll save you some work when the time comes," Rhinox agreed, nodding.
Kaban looked down at the book, read its title, then smiled. "I will! Thanks."
"Look, we better get going before everybody else starts waking up," Goji said. "You guys take care of yourselves, all right? With any luck, I'll see you again soon."
Kaban took off her pith helmet and bowed deeply, holding it before her chest with both hands. "Thank you both so much for all your help," she said.
"No worries," Rhinox said.
"It's what we do," Goji agreed. Then she raised her right hand, spreading her fingers in a curious two-fingers-each-side V formation, and said, "Be seeing you!"
A moment later, her figure and that of Rhinox began to glow with a sparkling blue-white radiance, faded away, and disappeared.
"Wow," said Serval.
"You don't see that every day," Tsuchinoko observed.
"Well," said Rhinox as he moseyed down from the Steelhaven's transporter platform, "I think that went very well. Rhinox: maximize." After returning to robot mode, he stretched his arms and cricked his neck with a satisfied grunt, then went on, "Haven't worn that altmode for so long in quite a while. Anyway, I'm going to get us headed to New Avalon. Why don't you get some more sleep? You still look beat, and the writeup can wait until we get back to the office."
Goji nodded. "Good idea."
Out in the corridor, they headed in opposite directions for a few paces; then Rhinox paused, turned, and said, "By the way. Shingoji?"
Goji paused, turning. "Mm?"
"You did good," Rhinox told her. "A UCS is always tricky, and you handled this one well. You judged the situation, determined that you were with the right kind of locals to play it straight, and didn't push them around. You intervened, but only to help them do what they were trying to do anyway. You ran some big risks for the sake of these people and their way of life." He smiled. "That's all solid work, and it'll all be in my report. The Primes will be pleased, and so will the Chief."
Goji smiled. "Thanks, Rhinox."
"Hey, it was all you," said Rhinox with a shrug. "I'm just reporting it."
"Hey Kaban?" asked Serval from her tree branch.
"Yes, Serval?" Kaban responded, closing her new book on a finger and looking up from her spot at the foot of the tree.
"What do you think we should do next?"
"Hmm," said Kaban thoughtfully. "Well, we have some time before the ambassadors Goji-chan told us about will get here." She considered the matter for a few moments, then smiled and said, "Let's go to Campo Flicker's lodge. After everything we've been through, I feel like just lying around for a little while."
Serval grinned. "That sounds good to me," she agreed. Then she jumped down from the tree with a quiet "hup!" and landed before Kaban in a predatory crouch, which she immediately abandoned in favor of snuggling up alongside her.
"Raaar. Got you."
"Please don't eat me."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
Friends Like These: From the Chronicles of Japari Park
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
with the gracious aid of
The EPU Usual Suspects
(in order of appearance)
Northern White-Faced Owl
Eurasian Eagle Owl
Southern Rockhopper Penguin
and pretty much everyone else!
Based on Kemono Friends created by
Kaban created by
Shingoji Nakajima inspired by
Shin Gojira (by Toho), by way of
the fan comic Shingoji-chan by Kishida Shiki
E P U (colour) 2019